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The Nation

Bankruptcy Bill Hits Delay Over Abortion Detail

Politics: GOP lawmakers in the House object to a deal that Rep. Hyde reached with Democrats. Meanwhile, a trade bill is headed for approval.

July 27, 2002|WARREN VIETH and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Antiabortion Republicans in the House early today forced what could be a fatal delay of a bill to make it more difficult for consumers to cancel their debts by filing for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, the House moved toward passage of a bill that would allow President Bush to negotiate new trade agreements without being second-guessed by Congress.

The House planned to pass the compromise bankruptcy legislation Friday night before leaving for the summer, but hit a snag after an argument rose among Republicans over an abortion provision in the bill.

One of the sticking points on the legislation was a provision that would prohibit people who attack or block access to abortion clinics from declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying court-ordered fines.

GOP Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, one of the leading anti-abortion Republicans in the House, had fought to curb or kill that provision, and went along with the bankruptcy deal only after Senate Democrats agreed to limit the measure to people who intentionally or knowingly violate the law.

But a group of antiabortion Republicans, led by GOP Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, objected to Hyde's deal with Senate Democrats, delaying the floor movement until September.

The bankruptcy and trade measures were strongly backed by business, and their approval would have served as counterpoint to House and Senate passage of corporate reform legislation a day earlier. While business lobbyists were unable to head off the reform juggernaut, which was propelled by public outrage over accounting fraud, they demonstrated Friday that they could still flex their muscles on other measures opposed by consumer advocates.

"Bush and Congress can't afford to excommunicate business," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Large and small businesses are critical to economic recovery, not to mention the politicians' campaign war chests."

House and Senate negotiators late Thursday had announced agreements on compromise versions of the trade and bankruptcy bills; such accords usually set the stage for quick passage of legislation.

If approved by the House, the trade bill will go to the Senate, which could pass it as early as next week. The White House has indicated that Bush will sign it. The trade bill would restore the "fast-track" authority that was extended to every president from Gerald Ford through Bill Clinton but lapsed eight years ago after the contentious battle to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement. It would allow the president to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could accept or reject, but not amend.

"We're going to get a free trade agreement, which is very important for jobs and workers, very important for our farmers and ranchers, and it's very important for our economy," Bush told reporters after paying a visit to the Capitol to press for passage.

The White House has said that without fast-track authority, it cannot negotiate effectively with other countries because any deals made could be taken apart in Congress. Bush plans to use the authority in the new round of global trade talks launched last year in Qatar, as well as in negotiations to create a free trade area of the Americas that would extend NAFTA to the entire Western Hemisphere.

The measure packages fast-track authority with a significant expansion of government benefits for workers who lose their jobs because of trade. It would extend the length of vocational retraining and expand it to include farmers, fishermen and workers in downstream industries. It would provide limited tax credits to help trade-displaced workers keep their health insurance and partial wage insurance for older workers who take a pay cut when they go back to work.

The changes would nearly triple the size of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, increasing annual outlays from about $400 million to more than $1 billion.

The trade measure also would extend preferential tariff treatment for imports from Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, whose governments are trying to wean their economies away from cocaine production.

Both houses of Congress have already passed fast-track bills once, the Senate by a 66-30 vote in May and the House by a razor-thin 215-214 in December. But it took negotiators until late Thursday to reconcile differences between the two bills.

Approval of fast-track "means more free trade agreements and a more stable world economic order," Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) said before the House took up the measure. "America wins in both scenarios."

But critics contend that previous trade pacts have failed to protect the interests of U.S. workers or ensure that other countries observe basic labor and environmental standards. Congressional opponents want to reserve the right to participate more fully in the process of negotiating new trade deals.

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