Bush Requests Fast-Track Authority

President Bush asked Congress on Wednesday to extend for two more years his authority to negotiate trade agreements under a "fast-track" (search) approval process. He needs that power to complete several U.S. trade deals as well as a pact covering 148 nations.

The authority that expires July 1 allows Congress only to approve or reject, without amendments, trade deals that the president sends to Capitol Hill. Bush's request will extend that expedited process of congressional review through July 1, 2007.

Approval of the extension will be automatic unless either the House or Senate votes to reject the request.

While opponents contend that Bush's free trade policies have contributed to record trade deficits, supporters believe they have the votes to reject any effort to deny the president's request.

In a letter to congressional leaders about the extension, Bush did not mention the trade deficits, which last year hit an all-time high of $617 billion.

He said that it was important for the economy to continue to pursue bilateral free trade agreements and multilateral trade deals, including the current round of talks held under the auspices of the 148-nation World Trade Organization (search).

"Working with the Congress, my administration has completed trade agreements with 12 nations on five continents that will open a combined market of 124 million consumers for America's farmers, manufacturers and service providers," Bush wrote. "Free and fair trade creates jobs, raises living standards that want to create in freedom."

Critics of Bush's trade policies contend that the ballooning trade deficits (search) are a major factor in the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs since mid-2000.

The administration has won congressional approval for free trade agreements with Jordan, Chile, Singapore, Australia and Morocco. Before Bush took office, the United States had free trade agreements only with Canada, Mexico and Israel.

The administration is hoping to win congressional approval this year of an agreement covering six Latin American countries. This deal has run into opposition from Democrats who contend that it does not provide enough protection for U.S. workers against unfair competition from low-wage countries with lax enforcement of international labor and environmental standards.