House lawmakers reach agreement on Bush trade bill
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Seeking to end seven years of congressional deadlock, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has forged a compromise on legislation that would give President George W. Bush power to negotiate broad trade pacts, government and industry sources said on Wednesday.
"We have a solid and sensible bipartisan TPA (trade promotion authority) compromise," Adam Kovacevich, a spokesman for California Democratic Rep. Cal Dooley, told Reuters. "We are on the road to introducing a bipartisan bill soon."
Dooley is one of three Democrats who has worked on the compromise plan with Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican who chairs the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade issues.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, whose panel shares authority over trade, said he was encouraged by the proposal, which began circulating among lawmakers and business groups on Tuesday but has not yet been officially released.
"It takes important steps forward in the key areas of labor, environment and trade laws," Baucus said in a statement. "Clearly, there are still some important details to discuss -- particularly in the area of congressional oversight. But I am confident that we can work these out."
The White House has not had trade promotion authority, also known as "fast-track" negotiating authority, since 1994 because of differences between Republican and Democrats over the need for labor and environmental protections in trade pacts.
Under fast track, Congress gives up its right to amend agreements negotiated by the executive branch and agrees instead to vote yes or no on the overall pact within a specified period of time.
LOOKING TO QATAR, 2005
The Bush administration wants the legislation to help launch a new round of world trade talks at the World Trade Organization's upcoming meeting in Doha, Qatar, from Nov. 9-13, and to complete talks by 2005 on a free-trade agreement covering 34 countries from Canada to Chile.
Business groups warmly greeted the proposal, which would put labor and environmental objectives on par with more traditional trade negotiating areas, such as reducing import tariffs or strengthening copyright and trademark protections for U.S. companies in overseas markets.
The proposal would require U.S. negotiators to work for agreements aimed at protecting workers and the environment by requiring countries to enforce their laws in those areas.
It would also require negotiations on enforcement mechanisms for trade agreements, with the intent of providing the same sort of penalties for labor and environmental violations as in other more traditional trade areas.
"We think it's a good common sense approach," even though by bringing labor and environmental issues into trade talks it goes farther than some businesses would like, said Chris Padilla, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Coalition, which represents more than 200 companies and trade associations.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS, LABOR UNIMPRESSED
Labor and environmental groups said the proposal fell far short of what is needed to protects workers and the environment from the adverse effects of free trade.
"I actually see nothing in the proposal that addresses the core concerns of the U.S. environmental community," said Dan Seligman, a trade specialist for the Sierra Club.
The proposal would allow the Bush administration to expand controversial investment provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement to other trade pacts, he said.
Bill Samuel, legislative director for AFL-CIO, also said labor unions did not like what they saw.
"Our initial reading is there's no meaningful progress on labor and environmental issues," he said.
With Congress now in recess for Yom Kippur, any action on the bill would not come before next week.
Dan Maffei, a spokesman for Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Thomas and the Bush administration had much more work to do if they wanted a "truly" bipartisan bill.
"You would have to engage a broad array of Democrats and that clearly has not been done," Maffei said. "Basically, when you boil it down, (the proposal) maintains the status quo."
In a separate statement not related to the bipartisan plan, Rangel took U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to task for using the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States to bolster his case for Congress to approve trade promotion authority.
Zoellick has argued the U.S. "counteroffensive" should include an economic component, particularly the approval of trade promotion authority, which would help the United States promote increased growth and prosperity around the world.
"Mr. Zoellick is clearly using the attack and its aftermath as leverage to pressure Democrats to support giving the president fast track authority," Rangel said. "As a combat war veteran and as a person whose city has been attacked and suffered devastating loses as a result, I am offended."
Republicans previously have said they need about 40 Democrats to get to the necessary 218 votes for approval in House. However, in a show of support for Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, many Republicans who opposed the measure in the past are now expected to back it.