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President Pushes Lawmakers to Expand Trade

Legislation: Bush seeks 'fast-track' authority. Democrats want help for U.S. workers hurt by foreign competition.

April 05, 2002|WARREN VIETH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday gave Congress less than three weeks to act on legislation to expand U.S. trade, but Democrats said no progress was possible until the administration agreed to help workers laid off because of foreign competition.

Bush challenged the Senate to begin work by April 22 on two controversial bills. One would give him "fast-track" authority to negotiate new trade agreements, and the other would grant trade preferences to Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

The president said U.S. credibility and South American stability were at stake. "These bills are good for America; these bills are good for our friends," Bush said in a speech to State Department officials.

But he was silent on a third measure that Senate Democrats insist must be part of the legislative package: more aid for U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of imports.

Senate Democrats said they were willing to approve the fast-track and Andean trade legislation by Memorial Day, but only if the deal included additional trade adjustment assistance.

"The political reality is that other legislation to expand trade simply cannot move until action is taken on trade adjustment assistance," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

The exchange reflected an effort by Bush, whose free-trade credentials were tarnished by his recent decision to slap big tariffs on foreign steel, to shift the spotlight to what he characterized as congressional foot-dragging on trade.

But some congressional aides and trade experts said the strategy could backfire if it creates the impression the president had no compassion for Americans whose lives were disrupted by trade expansion.

"One of the problems with free trade is we never compensate the losers," said Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, a corporate-financed think tank. "We always say that there are more winners than losers, and that's true. But there are losers, and we're not helping them."

Fast-track authority, which lapsed in 1994, would let the president negotiate trade agreements that Congress could accept or reject but not amend. "While we've been marking time, our competitors have been working," Bush said. "While we have been delaying, they've been trading."

Bush said he needed fast track to advance U.S. interests in a new round of global trade talks, negotiate a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and complete pending trade pacts with Chile, Singapore and other countries.

Even more pressing, Bush said, is congressional action on renewing the Andean Trade Preferences Act, which let Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador ship some products to the United States duty-free until it expired in December.

Bush has temporarily waived tariffs on imports from the four countries, but the deferral will end May 16--hence the April 22 deadline for Senate action.

The president, who recently visited South America, said Andean leaders told him the trade preferences helped provide economic alternatives to cocaine.

The president's remarks contained no reference to the future of U.S. workers whose jobs are eliminated when U.S. firms shut down or move operations to other countries in response to low-cost imports.

Since 1962, the government has provided extended unemployment benefits, vocational training and other services to trade-displaced workers. About 35,000 Americans received such assistance in 2000.

Senate Democrats want to renew the program, which expired late last year, and expand it to farmers, fishermen and workers in "secondary" industries affected by increased imports.

The administration has advocated a limited expansion of trade adjustment assistance. But it wants to deal with the issue after the fast-track and Andean trade measures have been enacted.

Bush's silence on the issue was not an oversight, insisted one Democratic aide who requested anonymity. "We pushed them pretty hard to mention [it] in the president's speech today," he said. "It wasn't like it was just forgotten."

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