With the proposal to renew the president's "fast-track" trade-negotiating authority showing surprising strength in the Senate, all eyes are turning to the House of Representatives.
The fate of the measure hangs on a handful of lower-house votes, in a ballot set for tomorrow. Unlike the Senate, where most of the Democratic leadership backs the White House request, all of the House's Democratic leaders oppose it.
While seemingly a technical issue, the president's ability or inability to negotiate free-trade agreements could profoundly affect the nation's economy and the jobs of millions of American workers.
Fast track has stalwart opponents in both parties. House Republican advocates say they can get 150 GOP votes at best and must have 70 Democrats to pass the measure. Democratic supporters doubt they can muster that many.
"There is a substantial majority of Democrats who will vote against fast track, in the range of 150 to 160," House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, a bill opponent, told reporters yesterday at a Monitor breakfast.
The calculations are further complicated by a group of 20 to 30 conservative GOP rebels, who say they will vote against fast track unless President Clinton agrees to Republican positions on some of the four spending bills still in dispute. Those involve such issues as national education testing and census sampling, which most Republicans oppose, as well as controversial anti-abortion language in the foreign-operations bill.
A poll by the CongressDaily newsletter shows 199 members in both parties either opposed to or leaning against fast track, with 115 affirming support. That means almost all 119 of those undecided or not responding must support fast track in order for it to pass. A House GOP aide says the poll "is not far off."
Even so, majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas says the vote count in favor of fast track is improving: "Sometimes you really get ... to the moment of truth and you don't know ... until you watch the vote."
At least some of the "undecideds" may be simply protecting themselves from aggressive labor-union campaigning against the measure and will support it.
THE House vote follows Senate proponents' overwhelming 69-to-31 win on a key procedural vote Tuesday, including a majority of both parties. Another procedural vote was expected yesterday evening in the second of eight hurdles the bill must overcome. While Senate passage of fast track is not in doubt, opponents vow to prolong the debate as much as Senate rules allow. They hope to prevent a vote before the House ballot tomorrow in order to stall momentum now building for the bill.
The measure would give the president authority to negotiate trade agreements, which Congress could ratify but not amend. Supporters say other nations will not negotiate trade deals if they believe that Congress will change whatever accord diplomats reach. Opponents of the current bill, negotiated between Mr. Clinton and Hill Republicans, say it should require foreign-trade partners of the United States to enforce their own labor and environmental laws. Others argue that free-trade depresses American wages and leads to a loss of US jobs to poorer countries.
Every chief executive since President Ford has had such authority. The issue now is whether to renew the provisions, which expired a few years ago.
Clinton has walked a tight rope between Republicans, who want no mention of labor and environmental standards in the bill, and his fellow Democrats, who insist on it. He attempted to bridge the gap by releasing Monday a series of 26 "executive initiatives" to address concerns about labor and environmental standards and agricultural trade. Among the provisions, the president would advocate that the World Bank accept "friend of the court" briefs from environmental groups when settling disputes; press development banks to "promote adherence to core labor standards"; issue annual reports on labor conditions in free-trade partner countries; and better track US imports of cattle and beef. Yesterday he was scheduled to announce increased aid to workers displaced by free trade.
Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota claims the president's action has induced a number of Senate Democrats to support fast track. "This isn't your father's Oldsmobile," he says. "This is a different trade agreement.... I think it merits broad bipartisan support."
But critics say no enforcement teeth have been added. While the president should get fast-track authority, Mr. Gephardt says, "we should be ... clear over what Congress expects in a treaty."