WASHINGTON -- Bucking organized labor and Democratic leaders in Congress once again, President Clinton launched another fight over global trade yesterday.
In a reprise of his uphill -- and ultimately successful -- fight four years ago to get the North American Free Trade Agreement approved, Clinton is seeking "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements with foreign countries.
Under fast-track, a power routinely granted every president since the mid-1970s, the administration is given authority to hammer out trade agreements that Congress can vote either up or down -- without amending or altering the proposed treaty.
In an East Room ceremony that resembled a campaign-style rally, the president argued yesterday that without fast-track other nations won't enter into serious negotiations with the United States for fear that Congress will try to reshape agreements after the fact.
Clinton also maintained that removing obstacles to trade is crucial to the nation's continued economic health.
"Every single trade agreement we will reach will tear down barriers to our goods and services, and that is good for America," Clinton said. "The question is whether we are going to lead the way or follow. Today, this country is at the pinnacle of its influence. Our economy is the strongest in the world. We have been very, very blessed. This is not the time to shrink from the future."
These are the same arguments Clinton employed in the bruising 1993 fight over NAFTA. But critics countered -- as they did during the NAFTA debate -- that if the president wants such latitude to negotiate treaties, he should be required to insist that U.S. trading partners adhere to minimal standards regarding labor conditions and environmental damage.
"We're sick and tired of trade agreements that benefit big corporations instead of working families," Teamsters President Ron Carey said at a counter-rally outside the White House.
"The Clinton administration promised us an environmentally responsible trade policy, but NAFTA opened our borders to unsafe food imports, and failed to clean up the U.S.-Mexico border," added Debbie Sease, legislative director of the Sierra Club.
Consumer activist Ralph Nader and AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez Thompson also vowed at the rally to fight fast-track with grass-roots lobbying campaigns. On Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, often mentioned as a likely rival of Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, pledged to oppose fast-track unless environmental and labor standards are included in the bill the administration is sending to Congress.
For their part, Republicans are opposed to such provisions and threatened to withdraw their strong support for fast-track unless the White House rebuffs Gephardt and other labor Democrats.
"If he sends us a clean fast-track bill, it should sail through," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said. "If he loads it up with labor and environmental provisions, it'll get bogged down."
White House officials said they were searching for a way to finesse the issue so that it wouldn't engender the kind of ill-will that followed the NAFTA debate. Clinton himself sounded almost weary of this fight -- even before it had begun.
"Our trade policy should not be about politics, it ought to be about prosperity and building a new economy for the new millennium," the president said. "We have to act now to continue this progress to make sure our economy will work for all of the American people. Congress, therefore, must renew the president's traditional authority to negotiate trade agreements."
But Clinton himself was not ready to act yesterday: Uncertainty over how much labor and environmental protection to include in his proposal left the White House without a completed bill -- and put the president in the awkward position of drumming up support for legislation that has not been drafted yet.
This prompted concern -- and even some derision -- among Clinton's fast-track allies.
"It would be helpful if the administration follows up today's event by submitting to the Congress a specific fast-track proposal," said Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said he told the White House: "You mean you're going to announce what you're doing but you don't have it yet?"
White House officials appeared last night to be moving toward a compromise fashioned by Archer that would allow Clinton to incorporate labor and environmental requirements into future trade pacts -- but only if those conditions directly relate to specific products under negotiation.
Gephardt, however, warned that this wouldn't be enough to satisfy him -- and that if Clinton went for this gambit, he would try hard to rally Democrats against the bill.
White House officials, who had hoped to garner 80 or 90 Democratic votes in the House, do not take his threat lightly.
"It will obviously be very difficult," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.
Pub Date: 9/11/97