WASHINGTON — Congress is heading toward a trade battle, with Republicans trying to give the president more power to negotiate new deals and Democrats saying that won't happen without looking at the broader effects of world trade.
At issue is "fast track," or more formally, trade promotion authority. Since 1974 every president has had the authority to work out trade agreements without congressional interference. Congress can still reject agreements, but it cannot amend them.
Congress hasn't renewed the authority since it expired in 1994, however, and President Bush wants it back this year, in time for a new round of World Trade Organization talks and efforts to conclude negotiations on a Western Hemisphere free-trade zone.
Bush can't send his team into those talks "with one hand tied behind their back," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. "He asked for my word that we would try to get this done this year. And I gave him my word."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is trying to jump-start the process by pushing for a fast-track vote before the August recess. "We need a super salesman to move our products around the world. We need to get this done," he said.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, Rep. Philip Crane, R-Ill., has a GOP-backed bill ready to go. It doesn't mention the two issues that Democrats insist be included in any fast-track legislation — protections for worker rights and the environment. It also has almost no Democratic support.
Republican aides said the bill has 170 solid supporters, nearly 50 short of a majority, and that Crane and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., are making adjustments to meet some Democratic concerns.
Just picking up a few Democrats is a dead end, said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the trade panel. "As we see it, we need a trade policy for today that reflects the issues of today, not of 10 years ago," he said.
Levin said that means that any trade agreement must address the issues of not only labor and environment but also e-commerce and intellectual property, or copyrights. And, he said, Congress must be given a bigger role in negotiations. Levin is writing an alternative bill with Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on Ways and Means.
In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the administration "seems unwilling to actually engage in the hard negotiations required to make fast track a reality."
Baucus told a business forum last week that he will soon outline some basic principles for those negotiations. These include assurances that participants in a trade pact will not lower environmental or labor standards to gain a trade advantage; a larger role for Congress and greater administration support for groups such as the International Labor Organization.
Many Republicans say labor and environmental issues should be kept out of trade agreements and dealt with by the ILO and the United Nations Environment Program.
Grassley said he still hoped to reach a compromise with Baucus on the labor and environmental issues, as long as the language doesn't include the possibility of sanctions, which many Republicans view as encroaching on U.S. sovereignty.
But he said finding common ground this year could be very tough because of opposition by labor unions.
The AFL-CIO is asking members to send a message to lawmakers stating that any measures "that fall short of requiring enforceable workers' rights and environmental safeguards in the core text of trade agreements are completely inadequate."
On the other side, Willard Workman, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president, said in a report there was no reason for the business community to compromise on fast track, "especially when organized labor has indicated an unwillingness to compromise."
Workman, in an interview, added that the fast-track debate is far more than just a business vs. labor standoff. That there are more than 9,000 tariff items means there are 9,000 special interest groups wanting a say in trade agreements. Congress, he said, "needs to be reminded of the virtue of giving the president this hot potato."