WASHINGTON – The battle between microchips versus Cadillacs heated up on Capitol Hill Monday ahead of a House vote this week on whether to grant President Bush the right to fashion trade agreements with other countries without Congress's thumb in the mix.
Trade promotion authority — or fast track authority as it is commonly called — gives Congress the right to reject or approve the trade agreement, but not to amend it. Supporters of the bill said it should be passed because otherwise nations will not negotiate seriously with the United States for fear that any agreement can be sliced and diced by Congress.
Sectors of the so-called old economy — including steel and automobile industries, textiles and farming groups, oppose fast track authority because they think erasing trade barriers — beyond those already done seven years ago in the North American Free Trade Agreement — will produce what former presidential candidate Ross Perot once called "that giant sucking noise" of jobs and wages leaving the United States for countries like Mexico, with its cheaper labor.
"When we entered into NAFTA, the year we signed the agreement, we had a trade surplus with Mexico of $5 billion. Last year we had a trade deficit of $24 billion. So, with a track record like this, I think you can understand why we balk at the request now on the part of our trade negotiators to give them another blank check," said John Spratt, D-S.C., ranking member of the House Budget Committee.
Opponents say that since mid-October, one American steel or mining firm has gone belly up every eight days and fast-track authority would bleed American manufacturers dry.
But supporters of the fast-track negotiating authority like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and newer industries like hi-tech firms, say the fast track approach will open up markets to U.S. products, a position shared by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Lott said one of the reasons the agriculture industry has had such troubles — with the government propping up the weak industry through subsidies — is because markets are not available for U.S. products.
"We need to try to find ways to negotiate agreements where we can have free and open trade, including our agriculture products," he said.
And one congressman said opening up trade relations will help the American shopper.
"Consumers benefit the most because it is keeping prices low. It is keeping inflation and interest rates down, it is enabling consumers to buy from a much wider choice of products," said Rep. James Moran, D-Va.
Either way, the House vote on the measure this Thursday will be close. Some Republican supporters of the bill say hi-tech lobbyists haven't done enough to help convince members to vote for the bill, while others say the same about Bush.
Only about two dozen Democrats support the measure currently. That would require Republicans to supply as many as 190 to 200 votes to win approval. Of the 221 Republicans in the 435-seat House, more than 50 voted in 1998 to deny former President Clinton trade promotion authority, which was revoked in 1994.
U.S. business officials said they are focusing their lobbying this week on about 45 undecided lawmakers they think hold the key to approval of the measure.
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chairman of the House Rules Committee, said he is not sure if there are enough votes in the House, but suggested that GOP leaders will whip their comrades into agreement.
Dreier said, "We uh, believe... that we will have the votes when the Speaker of the House announces all time has expired."
The bill also requires Senate approval. Lott said he thinks the Senate would approve the measure overwhelmingly if it came for a vote, which it hasn't because it is stuck in a Senate Finance Committee fight.
James Rosen joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 1999 and is the network’s chief Washington correspondent.