President Clinton's request for congressional authorization to negotiate new trade agreements, a top priority of his second term, cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the measure by voice vote with no public discussion after members had spent more than an hour huddled with administration representatives behind closed doors.Clinton is seeking fast-track negotiating authority to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico to other countries in Latin America and beyond.
Clinton has been criticized by labor unions and environmental groups for emphasizing trade agreements over worker rights and environmental protection, but administration officials said they were happy with compromise language that had been worked out.
"We are very pleased with the action taken today by the Senate Finance Committee," U.S. trade representative Charlene Barshefsky told reporters. "It was a strong bipartisan showing of support for fast-track legislation, for the power of the president to continue to lead with respect to international economic policy."
The fast approval before the Finance Committee sends the measure to an uncertain future in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott expressed concerns Wednesday about lack of Democratic support in the Senate, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich said no more than 14 House Democrats are currently willing to publicly commit to support for the proposal.