WASHINGTON -- Democrats are demonstrating this week their new power to influence U.S. trade policy, announcing demands and scheduling hearings before considering whether to renew President Bush's power to negotiate trade deals on a "fast track."
With Bush's trade promotion authority expiring June 30, the White House is hoping to quietly work out a deal with key Democrats before introducing renewal legislation. Recently, U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab said in an interview that her office was "engaged in a conversation with the Congress ... to determine how broad and what the duration should be" for such trade authority.
But a number of Democrats ignored such closed-door discussions and instead have begun a noisy public challenge to Bush's trade policies.
Those policies have been "an unbelievable failure," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who chairs a Senate subcommittee on trade.
On Tuesday, Dorgan said his subcommittee would hold hearings this spring to examine how trade agreements approved on a fast track have affected U.S. workers and the environment. He said the hearings would show how trade promotion authority is "a trade strategy that is failing this country."
Yesterday, he joined with a group of senators and representatives who enumerated the concessions they want included in trade legislation, such as much higher labor standards, more national security requirements, tougher environmental provisions, prohibitions against currency manipulation and new aid for displaced U.S. workers.
Congress no longer is going to sign off on the "job-killing trade agreements" that the Bush administration has promoted in the past, said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat.
Today, the Senate Finance Committee is holding a hearing to explore the nation's trade agenda.
Dorgan said his separate subcommittee's hearings will focus specifically on the impact of trade promotion authority.
The authority lets the administration negotiate a trade agreement and submit it to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote. Trade proponents argue that other countries would not want to negotiate if they knew Congress could then change the deal. Allowing the authority to lapse, they say, would undercut the leadership of the world's largest economy in opening markets.
But Dorgan said trade promotion authority takes away too much of Congress' power to participate in trade issues.
The last time Congress extended the president's trade authority was in 2002, when the country was recovering from a recession and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But even though Bush was riding high in polls and Republicans controlled the House, Bush won the authority by just a single vote in that chamber.
This year, Bush is a lame duck with low poll ratings, and Democrats control the House and Senate. Most Democrats are far more skeptical about trade expansion than Republicans. But even many Republicans are more reticent this time around, stung by the loss of manufacturing jobs, especially in Southern textile-producing states.
For example, Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican, joined Dorgan and Brown yesterday to say that he, too, wants big changes in trade policy. He noted that since Bush took office, his state has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs. "I'm tired of this country selling its soul to China," he said.
To secure enough support for trade promotion authority renewal, Bush likely would have to accept a much larger package of legislation that would include many of the concessions demanded by Dorgan and his fellow trade skeptics.
Although Dorgan said he opposes authority renewal regardless of concessions, many Democrats are more willing to work out compromises. For example, when Schwab appeared last month before the House Ways and Means Committee, Chairman Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, said: "I want to be your new best friend because, together, we can share with the American people and with the Congress how important trade is to the United States and how it can lead to broad-based growth here and abroad."
Schwab said the administration has so far held back from presenting Congress with its authority legislation while trying to work out compromises so the bill ''will have a respectable chance of moving ahead."
Despite Bush's support for open markets, he has scored fewer trade victories than President Bill Clinton did in the 1990s when he nailed down the North American Free Trade Agreement and completed the Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations.
The BUSH TRADE RECORD
Under the current "fast-track" authority approved in 2002, the United States has completed seven free-trade agreements with:
The Dominican Republic and Central America, 2006.
Trade agreements signed but awaiting congressional action:
Agreements being negotiated:
[ Cox News Service]