Bush says trade bill will be economic boon for American businesses

Friday, August 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An elated President Bush promised to move quickly to expand American markets overseas after Congress voted to give him broad authority to negotiate global trade agreements.

``I look forward to bringing some trade agreements back to the Congress that will help workers and farmers and ranchers,'' Bush said in a call to Senate leaders after the Senate voted 64-34 to restore the trade negotiating, or fast track, authority that Congress has withheld from the White House for eight years.

The trade package also includes a 10-year, $12 billion plan to help workers who lose their jobs because of trade and renews a program of low tariffs with Colombia and three other Andean nations designed to help their economies and make them less reliant on illegal drugs.

The legislation was hailed as monumental in scope. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans called it a ``victory for the entire world, a kind of tool we need to lead the world to peace and prosperity.''

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who guided the bill through the Senate with Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, said it would ``help restore American trade prestige worldwide, so desperately needed. It also will help give the economy a boost.''

But the measure, sought by Bush since his first days in office, also met strong opposition, largely from Democrats who balked at ceding to the president the powers over foreign commerce that the Constitution gives Congress. They warned against trade agreements that would encourage job-killing imports or undermine worldwide labor or environmental standards.

Congress, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is ``handcuffing itself'' when ``a huge growing trade deficit is beginning to strangle this country.''

The bill narrowly passed the House on a 215-212 vote Saturday morning. In both chambers the bill was the last vote before members left for their August break.

Trade promotion authority allows the president to negotiate trade agreements that Congress may approve or reject but cannot change. First given to the president in 1974, Congress refused to extend it after it expired during the Clinton administration in 1994, mainly because of concerns from Democrats and their allies in the labor and environmental lobbies.

Backers of the bill said America has been left behind since then, participating in only three free trade agreements _ with Israel, with Jordan and in the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. There have been 193 such agreements around the world in that time.

The return of fast track, said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Donohue, ``takes American businesses off the sidelines and puts them back in the game.'' He said it would help not only American manufacturers but also those involved in insurance, banking and investment. ``The market will respond positively,'' he predicted.

Bush, in his conversation with Senate leaders, said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has ``got his running shoes on _ he's going to hit the ground running to bring us some good trade agreements.''

Zoellick, appearing at a news conference with the senators, said that with the renewed negotiating clout he hoped to conclude current free trade talks with Chile and Singapore within a matter of months. He said he hopes to soon initiate talks with Central America, Morocco, Australia and countries in southern Africa.

Most important, the United States intends to take a leading role in a new round of World Trade Organization trade liberalization talks.

Despite the strong vote in the traditionally pro-trade Senate, Baucus said fast track would have never passed without the provisions to expand Trade Adjustment Assistance, a Kennedy-era program giving financial and retraining aid to trade-displaced workers.

The aid program ``is the horse,'' Baucus said. ``Fast track is the rider.''

The bill almost doubles those eligible for the aid program to nearly 200,000, extending it to suppliers to trade-affected plants, farmers and ranchers and some workers whose factories move overseas. For the first time, these workers could get a tax credit to help pay for 65 percent of health insurance costs.