WASHINGTON -- The Republican leaders of both the House and the Senate said yesterday that legislation giving the president renewed authority to negotiate global trade accords has failed to gain enough support in Congress and blamed President Clinton for not doing enough to win over Democrats to the cause.
The Senate majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, said there was little momentum behind the legislation and "some concern whether it will come to fruition before the end of the year" because the White House was too disengaged.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich was far more pointed, declaring yesterday that there were not enough votes in the House to pass the trade measure known as "fast track" and implying that Republicans were reluctant to bail out Clinton on legislation that so many Democrats oppose.
"I do not today see the votes in the House to pass fast track," Gingrich said. "I believe the legislation is in very deep trouble."
The Republican leaders sounded as if they were proclaiming the imminent death of the bill that would enable Clinton to complete the trade agenda at the center of his foreign policy.
Clinton has repeatedly described renewing his negotiating authority as an issue of world leadership and said that backing away would harm American exports and send a message that the United States would not press for market openings around the world.
Clinton is expected to hit that theme hard next month in a visit to Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, all countries that would become members of the "Free Trade Area of the Americas" that Clinton vowed to help create by early in the next century.
But administration officials said they read the Republican comments about the bill's troubles as a negotiating tactic, not a death sentence.
Noting that there were similar impasses over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 -- another case in which Clinton had to rely on Republicans rather than Democrats for support -- and in the budget accord this year, they suggested the Republican leaders were simply probing to see what concessions Clinton was willing to make on other issues in return for saving his bid for "fast track" authority.
"Things aren't that bad," Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. trade representative, said yesterday afternoon after a day of testimony in both the House and the Senate and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting of Democrats.
"We have made important progress, and we are actively engaged on both sides of the aisle in moving the process along so that the nation's trade agenda can move forward."
"Fast track" is not a trade accord but a set of rules to guide American negotiators as they work out trade agreements with other nations, the World Trade Organization and similar trade institutions.
Its name derives from the fact that those accords, once negotiated, have to be quickly voted upon by Congress, without amendment.
Other countries insist on such rules so special interest groups cannot reopen every agreement on the floor of Congress, to adjust the terms to benefit specific industries or producers.
It is a measure of how divisive trade accords have become -- particularly the 4-year-old NAFTA -- that a debate over the negotiating process has aroused such passions.
Pub Date: 10/01/97