WASHINGTON — President Clinton's inability to get enough votes in the House to renew his "fast-track" trade-negotiating authority illustrates a common Washington phenomenon: The politics of an issue often become more important than the issue itself.
The failure also revealed a serious split between the White House and Senate Democrats on the one hand, and House Democrats on the other. Most Senate Democrats, including minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, supported the president's proposal. But about three-quarters of House Democrats, including the entire leadership, opposed it. Observers were left wondering just how many Democrats are following the president in his attempts to move his party to the center.
"The folks in the party who have been fighting the president on a host of things finally found an issue on which there wasn't a lot of public support in favor of the president," says Ed Kilgore, political director for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which supports fast track. "This was an issue that didn't have much of a public profile at all."
Fast track refers to the president's ability to negotiate trade agreements with other countries that Congress can approve or reject, but not amend. It's an authority wielded by presidents since Gerald Ford. While Mr. Clinton has talked about expanding free trade with Latin America and Asia, this proposal says nothing about the provisions of any particular accord.
Still, fast-track supporters failed because opponents of the bill were able to turn the issue into a referendum on free trade, including the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and workers' anxieties about the new global economy.
Trade battle lines
Supporters of fast track argue that other countries will not negotiate with the United States if Congress can pick apart the resulting trade agreements. Opponents say the bill does not require other countries to enforce their own environmental and labor laws, thus putting American companies and workers at a competitive disadvantage. Protectionists argue that free trade costs US jobs and undermines the country's manufacturing base, while free-traders say it helps the economy grow and create new jobs.
House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who opposes the current bill, says the president made a mistake by trying to work with the Republican congressional leadership to craft a bill and then hoping enough Democrats would go along. Mr. Gephardt says the White House should instead get behind a proposal the overwhelming majority of Democrats would support and that could attract enough moderate Republicans to pass. He intends to introduce a counterproposal tomorrow.
"We've tried it the Republican way, and it's being rejected," Gephardt says. "I hope now we'll have a chance to work for a trade policy that puts American values squarely into future negotiations."
At the president's behest, House Republican leaders called off a vote Nov. 9 when supporters were only able to muster up to 170 Republicans and 40 Democrats in favor - about a dozen votes short of a majority.
Clinton and GOP leaders disagree on why they failed. While admitting he couldn't attract enough members of his own party, Clinton also blames a group of conservative Republicans who refused to vote for fast track unless he agreed to an anti-abortion clause in the foreign-operations spending bill.
Clinton refused. "Had we been able to resolve that, I think we could have gotten enough votes on the Republican side," he says.
But Republican leaders blame the Democrats and labor-union pressure. "The president and Vice President Gore obviously failed to persuade their own party ... that fast-track trade legislation was the right thing to do for our country's economy, for job creation, and for America's place in the world," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
The future of fast track is murky at best. Clinton says he'll "regroup" and "find a way to succeed." But Senator Lott is less optimistic: "It would appear to me that it's dead." While fast track could come up again in 1998, Lott argues, it will be even harder to enact during an election year.