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Senate installs loophole in 'fast-track' trade bill


WASHINGTON - Defying a veto threat, the Senate gave decisive support yesterday to a proposal that the Bush administration warned would derail a bill intended to let presidents negotiate trade deals that Congress can approve or reject but not change.

In a setback for the White House, senators voted 61-38 for an amendment that would allow Congress to alter trade deals that are seen as weakening protections for U.S. industries. The amendment was then attached to the overall trade bill.

President Bush is expected to try to kill the provision after the Senate approves its version of the trade bill, probably next week, and opens compromise talks with the House. The House version of the bill does not include such a provision.

But the vote yesterday sent a clear signal that lawmakers in both parties - especially those from regions most hurt by competition from foreign goods - believe they need to give voters some assurance that future trade deals will not come at the expense of their jobs.

"This is about people who are being harmed by [past] agreements or who may be harmed by these agreements in the future," said Sen. Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat who is a lead sponsor of the amendment.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, said, "What this vote said today, very loudly and very clearly, is that while we support trade [negotiating] authority, we are not at all happy with where we are.

"The trade-off is a progressive loss of jobs and putting our working men and women and our industries in a less than competitive situation."

Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, were among the filibuster-proof majority of senators who supported the Dayton-Craig amendment.

The amendment also had the backing of organized labor and the steel, textile, lumber and other industries that have lost jobs because of foreign competition in recent years.

The vote came after three Bush Cabinet members complained in a letter to the Senate that the Dayton-Craig amendment would "kill the bill's underlying purpose" and jeopardize international trade negotiations now under way.

The officials - Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative - also wrote that the amendment was unnecessary because Bush has already demonstrated his commitment to enforcing U.S. trade laws - in part through tariffs he recently imposed on steel imports.

"We would strongly recommend to the president that he veto legislation that included this amendment," they said.

But the threat did not come directly from Bush, who has yet to veto any legislation and has made the passage of the trade bill a top priority.

"I don't think he's going to veto it," Craig said. "I think he's going to work as hard as he can to get the amendment out of the bill when it goes into conference with the House."

Five previous presidents were granted "fast-track" negotiating authority to reach international trade agreements that Congress cannot rewrite. After the most recent such authority expired in 1994, President Bill Clinton tried twice, in vain, to persuade Congress to renew it.

The Bush administration is particularly eager to win what it calls "trade promotion authority" as soon as possible in order to take part in a new round of global trade talks that were launched in Qatar in November.

Some senators complained that the administration was so determined to get those talks started that it offered to negotiate away laws that protect U.S. industries from unfair trade practices, such as subsidies and the dumping of cheap goods on American markets.

But the administration countered that it needs to be able to come to the negotiating table without its hands already tied.

"The rest of the world will determine that the U.S. Congress has ruled out even discussion of a major topic," the Cabinet officials wrote. "Other countries will refuse to discuss their own sensitive subjects, unraveling the entire trade negotiation to the detriment of U.S. workers, farmers and consumers."

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