House Is Hurdle for Clinton 'Fast Track'

GOP leaders warn that president needs to enlist more Democrats on free-trade bill.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If President Clinton expects to win "fast track" trade negotiating authority - a centerpiece of his economics-driven foreign policy - it is increasingly clear he'll need to do more to woo House lawmakers.

While the free-trade measure seems in for a smooth ride in the Senate, the going has been rougher in the lower chamber. House GOP leaders have sent a blunt message to the president: If the White House can't line up more House Democrats, the fast-track bill faces derailment.

"The president needs to get his shoulder to the wheel," says House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas. "This is going to be a very difficult vote to obtain."

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Fast-track authority, which has become the symbol of free trade in general, would restore to Mr. Clinton a tool his recent predecessors have enjoyed: the ability to negotiate trade agreements that Congress can approve or reject, but not amend. The administration argues that, without the authority, it cannot negotiate trade pacts with foreign countries because their negotiators worry Congress would amend whatever accord is reached.

Majority leader Armey says he's concerned the White House thinks it can get by with as few as 50 Democratic votes. His vote count shows that at least 70 Democratic votes are needed.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia paints an even bleaker picture: He says only 14 House Democrats are on board and that right now the bill would not get enough votes to pass. The threat is heightened because, as a tariff measure, the bill must originate in the House.

The White House has sent several Cabinet officials to the Hill to talk with the House Democratic conference, but reports indicate the meetings have not gone well. Apparently more successful has been a series of White House get-togethers in which the president has addressed smaller groups.

SUPPORT and opposition to fast track cut across party lines. Supporters, including many business leaders, argue that the proposal will lead to more trade and economic growth. Opponents, mostly labor unions and environmentalists, charge it would lead to loss of American jobs, lower wages, and environmental damage here and abroad.

Because a sizable minority of Republicans are lined up against the measure, House GOP leaders need a corresponding number of Democrats to vote for it.

But the House Democratic leadership - minority leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and whip David Bonior of Michigan - is leading the charge against fast track. Opponents want to add provisions requiring foreign trading partners to meet United States requirements on wages, labor rules, and environmental protection. Fast-track supporters just as adamantly resist tacking such issues onto trade talks.

Clinton's original proposal addressed some of those Democratic concerns. But a compromise measure that sailed through the Senate Finance Committee last week would allow trade negotiators to take up only those labor and environmental issues that are "directly related to trade."

The Senate measure was worked out with US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, who gave it the administration's endorsement. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota seemed more upbeat about fast track's future after the committee vote. "We made some real progress," he says. But "I still don't think we're out of the woods" over concerns on agriculture and other provisions, he says. "It's moving in the right direction, [but] I'm not prepared yet to make any endorsement of the bill."

House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer (R) of Texas was scheduled to introduce his own proposal yesterday for committee consideration tomorrow. It is not expected to differ significantly from the Senate version.

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