WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's trade agenda moved forward on two fronts Wednesday as the Senate approved a U.S.-Vietnam trade accord and House Republicans promised swift action on a bill to expand the president's trade negotiating power.
With Republicans promising committee action by Friday, a showdown on trade--a perennially divisive issue--is expected to come to the House floor as early as next week. Such a vote is likely to sharply divide the House and could be a key test of the political clout President Bush has gained since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Republican leaders, who narrowly control the chamber, say their own ranks are lining up behind the trade legislation because the administration has made it a high priority. Joined by a group of centrist Democrats, they are arguing that trade deals around the globe can help solidify the coalition fighting terrorism.
Democratic critics of the bill, meanwhile, acknowledge that they have been put on the defensive but pledge a fierce fight, blasting the Republicans for violating the spirit of bipartisanship that has marked Congress since Sept. 11.
The sudden movement on trade in the House came as the Senate resoundingly approved legislation to normalize trade relations with Vietnam. The 88-12 vote in the Senate on Wednesday--completing congressional action on a U.S.-Vietnam trade pact negotiated during the Clinton administration--marked another milestone in the long thaw of relations between two former military foes. Both California senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted for the trade bill.
In the accord, Vietnam agreed to reduce tariffs on about 250 goods, most of them agricultural products, and take other steps toward fair and open markets. Vietnam, in turn, will gain more access to U.S. markets.
The Vietnam trade bill marked the second bilateral agreement that Congress has approved in two weeks. On Sept. 25, the Senate finished legislation implementing a U.S.-Jordan free trade agreement.
But the politics of expanding presidential trade authority is much more complicated. Bush is seeking "fast track" negotiating authority, which his predecessor, Bill Clinton, briefly enjoyed at the outset of his presidency but lost after 1994 and never regained.
Such authority, typically delegated to the president by Congress for a specified period, would allow the administration to negotiate trade deals and present them to Congress for an up-or-down vote of approval. No amendments would be allowed--a condition U.S. trade negotiators call crucial to their ability to be taken seriously in talks with other countries.
Giving Bush fast track authority could help him, for example, pursue a proposed free trade zone for the Western Hemisphere.
Most Democrats oppose fast track legislation, saying it ignores their long-standing concerns about trade deals with countries that fail to meet the labor and environmental standards prevailing in the United States.
The legislation introduced by Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, attempts to answer those criticisms. Crafted with Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Visalia) and a handful of other pro-trade centrist Democrats, the Thomas bill would require U.S. negotiators to seek deals that:
* Ensure that a trading partner enforces its own labor and environmental laws.
* Promote respect for internationally accepted labor standards and environmental protections.
* Reduce policies that threaten sustainable development.
* Open markets for U.S. environmental technologies, goods and services.
The bill also would require the administration to consult more often with Congress and establish a congressional oversight panel to monitor negotiations. Under the bill, the president would be given fast track authority until June 2005, with a possible two-year extension at the discretion of Congress.
Thomas and other advocates said the bill had taken on greater urgency since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. They contend that the United States must step up its economic engagement around the world even as it seeks to forge new political and military coalitions to defeat terrorism.
"Many of us here believe that trade is vital to the country's security interests around the world," said Rep. John S. Tanner (D-Tenn.), a co-sponsor.
But many influential Democrats were dismayed by the proposal. Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), two of the party's top strategists on trade issues, said in a joint statement that the decision to introduce the legislation marked a breach of the bipartisan spirit that has taken hold in Washington since the attacks.
"The issue is joined," Rangel and Levin said, offering a counterproposal that they said would strengthen the U.S. commitment to upholding labor standards and environmental protections. "We wish that we had had a dialogue between [the Republican leadership] and all of the Democrats. This was not done."
As the action on trade accelerated, lobbyists for business groups, which support the Thomas proposal, and labor and environmental groups, which oppose it, girded for a clash. "We lose some Republicans, and we lose some Democrats," said Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.), a co-sponsor of the Thomas legislation. "But I am confident we will get this bill passed."