WASHINGTON - In a big victory for President Bush, the Senate voted yesterday to allow him to negotiate trade deals that Congress could accept or reject but not amend. Bush has called such presidential authority vital to America's economy.
The bill, which has passed the House and awaits Bush's signature, will revive a power that presidents wielded for two decades before it lapsed eight years ago. It had been stalled in Congress ever since.
The margin was a comfortable 64-34, with 20 Democrats joining 43 Republicans and one independent in favor. Five Republicans and 29 Democrats, including Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, opposed the bill.
Many Democrats had long objected to such "fast-track authority," saying it could result in trade deals that rob Americans of jobs because of cheaper imports.
But in a concession that drew crucial Democratic backing, the bill will greatly expand a 1960s-era program to help workers hurt by trade expansion. The government for the first time will pay 65 percent of health care premiums, in the form of tax credits, for those who lose jobs because of trade deals.
A triumphant Bush called Capitol Hill yesterday evening to congratulate a handful of senators and his top two trade officials - Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans - on the accomplishment, which he called "an historic moment in our nation."
Bush and his advisers have long argued that he needs the trade authority to regain U.S. leadership in the global economy, to create better jobs and to pry open international markets for American goods.
"You've all made it much more likely somebody's going to be able to find work, some farmer's going to be able to sell his products, and some nation's going to be able to trade with us, which will help lift it out of poverty," Bush told the group by phone.
The president is expected to use the authority to try to pass trade agreements with such countries as Chile and Singapore, to negotiate accords at the 144-nation World Trade Organization and to create a free-trade zone spanning the Western Hemisphere, which would be the largest such pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called the bill "the most progressive trade legislation in decades," and said, "We can show the world that America will lead the way in building a new consensus on international trade."
While the Senate approved the measure with plenty of votes to spare, the House passed it by three votes early Saturday morning, after hours of partisan maneuvering. Still, the district-by-district concerns that sent House Republican leaders scrambling for votes - from lawmakers fearful of trade deals that could hurt U.S. farm, steel or textile workers - were hardly absent from the Senate debate.
Byrd denounces plan
Despite broad support in the traditionally more pro-trade Senate, the bill drew vociferous objections from some who say it grants Bush license to harm U.S. industries and ship jobs overseas - sometimes to low-wage countries with dubious labor and environmental laws and high barriers to U.S. goods.
"It's not really about creating jobs or helping workers; it's about weakening our trade laws," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, said during a nearly hourlong denunciation of the bill. "Who is the president working for? The [WTO] or the United States?"
The core of the bill grants the president the power to present complex trade agreements to Congress as take-it-or-leave-it propositions, to approve or reject but not change. The administration made fast-track trade authority one of its top domestic priorities since Bush took office.
When the Senate first passed its version of the bill in May, lawmakers wary of such broad presidential authority inserted a provision. It essentially would have allowed senators to reopen trade deals if they weakened U.S. laws intended to remedy trade imbalances.
But under an agreement between the House and Senate finalized last week, the provision was dropped.
"I'm very distressed and deeply disappointed," said Sen. Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat who co-sponsored the discarded provision with Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican. "Congress ought to make sure these agreements better represent the overall interests of the American people, and not just some business interests and foreign capital."
Opponents of fast-track authority point to the sizable U.S. trade deficit and the decline of formerly vibrant American industries such as steel as evidence that recent trade agreements have hurt the country rather than helped it.
The NAFTA pact with Canada and Mexico, they argue, has allowed a surge of imports into the country while sending American jobs abroad and undermining the labor and environmental standards that the United States insists upon.
"I can't think of a trade agreement in recent years that has enhanced this country's economic position," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat.
To build a consensus for fast-track authority, the administration and congressional Republicans have had to take steps backward from their free-trade stance.
Bush decided this year to impose tariffs on imported steel. And House Republican leaders slipped provisions into a spending bill they passed this month to try to win the votes of lawmakers concerned about their states' textile producers.
Now that Bush has been given fast-track authority, business leaders close to the administration suggested yesterday that such "flirting with protectionism" will cease.
Republicans and business groups had pushed hard for final passage of the bill before Congress adjourned for its August recess, when the economy and voters' jitters about the stock market and corporate scandals are expected to be leading concerns. Passage of the trade bill was the last vote that senators cast before leaving for the break.
"What a powerful message this sends to our economy," exulted Evans, the commerce secretary.
The GOP could use the help, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suggested yesterday.
"It's going to be a continued focus" during the August recess, Frist said of the economy. "When people initially respond to the question, 'Who do you trust more on this, Democrats or Republicans?' people tend to say Democrats, and we recognize that."