Fast Track Debate Opens in Senate

Claiming that "fast track authority" will benefit everyone from U.S. workers to drug-embattled South American countries, President Bush is pulling out all the stops, even featuring the issue during his weekly radio address to the nation.

The Senate is expected to take up trade promotion authority, and Bush, as his predecessor did, is preparing for a peppered debate that will decide whether the president should have trade promotion authority.

But as former President Bill Clinton knew well, it is not an easy idea to sell — convincing Congress to give the executive branch virtual carte blanche to negotiate trade agreements with other countries while Congress gets only an up or down vote on the deal.

Clinton was unable to pass his version of the bill from 1994, when his authority was taken away, to 2000, when he left office, though he was able to see a number of his trade agreements pass through Congress anyway.

Bush, emboldened by House passage of the legislation in December, is bent on succeeding where Clinton could not.

"Now is the time to build on this record of success, without delay" he told radio listeners.

But the House passed Bush's version of the bill by a 215-214 vote, indicating there may be a lot of compromising before this issue is finally laid to rest.

"We're going to wait and see what he is given to vote on," said a spokeswoman for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who remained non-committal after being one of three members of the Senate Finance Committee to vote against fast track in February.

Like other representatives of the high plains states, Conrad is worried about the impact new agreements will have on farmers and ranchers, and points to existing sour deals and trade deficits with Canada and Mexico to underscore his point.

He's also concerned that his constituents, through their members of Congress, won't get their say when the time comes to approve new agreements.

"As a representative of the various constituencies, regional and industrial, there is not enough opportunities for Congress to bring its concerns to the table," said Conrad's spokeswoman.

Last week, the Senate moved to debate over renewing the Andean preferential trade agreement, which would keep open markets in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Bush said the agreement would help their struggling economies shift away from the drug trade and into productive industries.

Senate sources say fast track authority legislation may be attached to the Andean bill, along with any amendments that may be offered. It may be weeks before members can vote on a final product.

Led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Democrats are already gaining momentum on an amendment that would assist American workers who may be displaced as a result of business moving off-shore in future agreements. This is a main sticking point with labor unions and the farm industry and Bush has already signaled support of such assistance.

The amendment, which is a form of a bill called the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, would offer a mix of direct cash aid and retraining.

"It definitely proves a safety net for those farmers and ranchers who may be adversely affected by increased trade," Daschle spokesman Jay Carson said.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is currently working with ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to get fast track authority passed. Baucus' office said the bill will likely include workers' assistance, including extending federal health care aid to those in-between jobs.

But workers' compensation isn't the only issue. There has been concern that the countries that the U.S. does business with may not necessarily play by the same environmental and labor laws as this country does.

An amendment being drafted by Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who also voted against the measure in February, would "strengthen the labor provisions … give it teeth," said a spokeswoman from his office.

And Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., plans to introduce an amendment that would protect U.S. companies from frivolous international lawsuits. He points to a clause in the North American Free Trade Agreement that now allows foreign investors to sue American cities and states for imposing environmental and labor regulations on their business here in the U.S.

"You'll never convince me that anyone who supported NAFTA intended to infringe on U.S. sovereignty and leave American cities and states liable to foreign companies for literally billions of dollars wasted in frivolous lawsuits," he said. Now, he added, is the time to fix it.

But opponents say that the problem with fast track authority is imbedded in the very power it gives the president. Without the input of Congress, they say, the chances for adopting bad legislation that needs to be "fixed later" are greater, and it is the American people who suffer.

"There are a host of problems that have been created by past trade agreements and he feels that we need to go back and deal with them before creating new fast track authority," said Barry Piatt, a spokesman for Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

"It's a convoluted argument, but the bottom line is that Sen. Dorgan is all for robust free trade, but he wants it to be fair trade and for it to be reciprocal," he added.