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House OKs Trade Authority Measure

Congress: The narrowly approved bill would give Bush 'fast-track' negotiating power with foreign nations. He says 'a stronger hand' would benefit the economy.


WASHINGTON — Legislation that would significantly shift power to negotiate new trade agreements from Congress to President Bush narrowly cleared the House early Saturday.

Reacting to the 215-212 vote, Bush called upon the Senate to take final action on the bill before it adjourns Friday for the month of August.

Bush, in his weekly radio address, said that the legislation would give him "a stronger hand in negotiating foreign trade agreements." The president, confronted suddenly with economic challenges that include soaring budget deficits and a sharply declining stock market, added: "Trade agreements create good jobs and economic growth, because they open new markets to America's farmers and ranchers and manufacturers. I urge the Senate to get a final bill to my desk so I can immediately take action that will create jobs and strengthen the economy."

The measure would give Bush the authority through 2005 to negotiate new international trade agreements, subject to a single yes or no vote by Congress but without amendments.

This expanded trade authority, held by every U.S. president from Gerald R. Ford to Bill Clinton, expired in 1994 in the face of congressional stalemate.

Efforts to reduce barriers to the free flow of foreign products into the United States inevitably prove vexing for politicians of both parties. On one hand, goods produced by lower-cost labor offer better prices to U.S. consumers. Depending on the industry affected, however, cheaper imports can threaten American jobs.

This dynamic has played out anew with the trade bill. The legislation has broad support from large agricultural interests. But Bush has courted, with only mixed success, some members of Congress who feared that small farmers in their districts would be hurt, as were certain growers by the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993.

Bush has indicated that he would like to parlay broader negotiating power to expand the provisions of NAFTA beyond the United States, Canada and Mexico to every nation in the Western hemisphere, except for Cuba.

Supporters say that without presidential "fast-track" authority other countries would not negotiate seriously with the United States because Congress could change any deal. The president's lack of negotiating power has been an obstacle for Chile in particular, which is eager to reach a trade pact with the world's largest economy. Last spring, Chile broke off trade talks pending "fast-track" approval.

But the test will be whether the Bush administration can overcome the wariness that recent U.S. protectionist measures has created among South American trading partners and whether his administration will reduce the barriers established against Latin American producers of orange juice, steel and other commodities. Still, the trade bill would not appear to offer Bush much immediate relief for what besets the national economy.

"It's important, but not in the short run," said David A. Wyss, chief economist for Standard & Poors in New York. "It gives the president authority to negotiate treaties. Anything that comes out of this is two or three years off."

Saturday's vote on the bill came as House members raced to adjourn for their summer recess. One notable casualty, at least temporarily, was a bill to make it more difficult for Americans to erase their credit card and other debts by filing for bankruptcy. The bill, sought for years by credit card companies but opposed by consumer groups, may have fallen victim to the unyielding wedge of abortion politics.

A dispute over a provision aimed at blocking antiabortion activists from declaring bankruptcy to avoid fines assessed for protests at abortion clinics had stalled the legislation for months. An apparent compromise was reached last week among House and Senate leaders.

But late Friday, a small contingent of antiabortion lawmakers, led by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), succeeded in delaying a floor vote. Considering the time, the GOP leadership decided against seeking passage before the recess, congressional aides said.

The trade bill has been a priority for Bush, who visited Capitol Hill on Friday to bolster GOP support in the House. To help the measure's prospects, he had agreed to provisions aimed at assuaging concerns of some lawmakers.

The legislation would extend from 52 to 78 weeks the period when U.S. workers who lose their jobs as a result of trade agreements could receive income support and retraining.

Benefits also would be offered when a company moves a manufacturing plant to a country that has a preferential trade agreement with the U.S.

Some assistance with health insurance would be extended to dislocated workers. And farmers and ranchers would be made eligible for benefits.

Calculations about the bill's effect were on display among prominent Republicans:

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