WASHINGTON – In one of the longest 15-minute votes in memory, Republicans -- along with a handful of Democrats -- banded together to give the president authority to negotiate trade agreements with other countries without interference from Congress.
The vote, 215-214, had House Republican leaders calling the vote as soon as the final vote tipped the scale, long after the clock had expired.
Twenty-one Democrats and 194 Republicans overcame opposition concerned that free trade negotiations would swell imports to the United States and cause jobs to move to countries that pay lower wages.
The arm-twisting that forced several GOP lawmakers to get off the fence was helped by a last-minute plea by House speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
"This Congress will either support our president who is fighting a courageous war on terrorism and redefining American world leadership or we will under this president at the worst possible time," Hastert said.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., shot back at the accusation: "We'll fight on this floor but we'll salute the flag just like anybody else. To infer ... that we're not as patriotic as the next person is wrong."
President Bush, who has made trade promotion authority a top trade priority, made phone calls right up to the last minute to convince legislators to vote for the "fast track" bill. Lobbyists lined the sidewalk outside the entrance to the Capitol to intercept members walking from their offices to the House floor to vote.
Bush's 11th-hour lobbying rested on placating Republicans from steel, textile and citrus districts who have balked at backing legislation that could result in a surge of imports.
The White House immediately fired off a statement saying it was pleased with the outcome of the vote.
TPA, denied the president since 1994, would allow Bush to negotiate trade pacts that Congress could approve or reject but could not amend. The president would have to give Congress a draft agreement ahead of the negotiations. After negotiations are completed, he would have to send the deal to Congress for its stamp of approval.
The debate was typical for a trade deal and centered on how Americans will export its products and what its place is in the world.
House leaders tried to make the deal more palatable to some representatives by promising to help displaced workers and endangered industries in their districts. For farm products, provisions were included to ensure that the United States won't lower tariffs under trade agreements until trading partners lower their tariffs.
"He's my president, I love him, but I don't sell out my constituents," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who said before the vote that he was holding out support for "fast-track" for fear Florida's $9 billion citrus industry wouldn't be overrun by foreign competition.
The House began Thursday by taking up two bills that supporters of the trade measure hoped would give them the edge. One expands assistance for workers who lose jobs because of changing trade relations. The other increased money for the U.S. Customs Service, partly to counter the illegal imports of textiles through third countries.
The worker assistance bill passed easily, but the customs measure failed to win the two-thirds vote needed under a procedure that didn't allow amendments.
"The Republican leadership is now trying to buy votes," said Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who along with most Democrats opposed the trade bill. "It's an affront to the unemployed workers of this country."
House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the bill's author, on Wednesday announced a package of more than $20 billion to help people who have lost their jobs because of the recession or the Sept. 11 attacks, a major issue for Democrats.
The top three House Republicans, Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, sent Thomas a letter Wednesday endorsing the spending of "not less than $20 billion" to help displaced workers and saying "this bold offer on your part will encourage a number of our Democratic colleagues to support trade promotion authority."
Money for unemployed workers is being considered as part of an economic stimulus package that House and Senate leaders are struggling to put together.
Supporters say that without trade promotion authority the United States won't be taken as a serious negotiator at a new round of World Trade Organization talks to begin next month. They argue that U.S. exporters are losing because the United States is a participant in only three of more than 130 free trade agreements signed around the world in recent years.
Opponents counter that such recent pacts as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Uruguay Round have accelerated the flow of American jobs and plants overseas, don't adequately protect against dumping and other illegal trade practices and put American businesses in competition with countries without adequate worker rights or environmental protections.
At least one legislator, however, cast his vote based on his personal opinion.
"I, in fact, opposed granting President Clinton this authority. I did not trust him," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. "But I trust President Bush."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said that the Senate will not get to a vote until sometime next year, but he did not have a definitive date and wante dto consult with Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.