clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

House fight brewing over `fast track' trade bill

The House will vote next week on major trade legislation, setting the stage for an uphill lobbying campaign by President Clinton to secure passage of one of his top legislative priorities.

"I think we've got a good chance of winning," Rep. Bob Matsui, D-Calif., said shortly after House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., agreed to bring the measure to the floor. "I think we've got momentum."The measure would permit the president to present trade agreements to Congress for simple yes-or-no votes while denying lawmakers the chance to amend them - a process known as "fast track."

Clinton and other recent presidents have enjoyed such authority, but it has lapsed. Clinton wants the authority to negotiate new trade agreements in South America and among Pacific nations.

The issue divides both parties.

Most Republicans favor the measure, although a significant minority is expected to oppose it.

Most Democrats are opposed, and the party's two top leaders in the House, Reps. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and David Bonior of Michigan, will lead the fight against it. Backing them are organized labor and environmental groups, who charge the legislation would open the way for the loss of American jobs to nations where wages and working conditions are poor and environmental standards lax.

Supporters counter that the legislation is essential if America is to retain leadership in the world economy.

"The Asian stock tumble showed how the world economy is interdependent," said Rep. Philip Crane, R-Ill., a supporter of the measure. "Our exports, for example, are the largest growing part of our economy. Without fast track, our exports may be forced to stay home."

Officials said the House vote will be held Nov. 7, and a vote in the Senate is possible late next week, as well. Support for the measure is stronger there than in the House. However, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has threatened to hold up the bill in a bid to force Republicans to schedule a vote on campaign finance legislation.

The White House offered no comment Wednesday night on Gin-grich's decision to schedule a House vote, although the president and House speaker had met for more than an hour Tuesday to discuss that bill and other legislation pending as Congress nears the end of the session.

Republican aides said Gingrich was strongly influenced in his decision by Democratic supporters of fast track who met with him Tuesday in the Capitol. They all urged him to set a date, saying that was the only way to find out how many votes could be squeezed out of the Democratic rank and file for the legislation.

Republicans hold a 227-205 majority in the House, with one independent and two vacancies. According to sources who attended the Tuesday meeting, Gingrich told the Democrats he could produce 150 GOP votes, and it was up to them to find the 67 or so needed to assure passage.

In private, Republicans said they probably could reach 160 or even 170 votes from within their own caucus, but even so, finding 50 Democratic votes would be a challenge for the White House. Thus far, fewer than 20 Democrats have publicly declared their support while dozens have made clear their opposition.

Clinton has overseen a steady lobbying campaign in recent weeks, but that is expected to accelerate. United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson has been tapped to try and line up votes for the measure. A former Democratic lawmaker, Richardson was heavily involved in the successful drive to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, working then with Gingrich and against his own leadership.