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Bush Sends Controversial Trade Bill to Congress : Legislation: It would extend a system under which lawmakers cannot amend international agreements that the United States negotiates.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush sent Congress proposed legislation Friday that is expected to set off a heated political battle over whether the United States should continue to pursue new international agreements to reduce barriers to foreign trade.

U.S. Trade Representative Carla Anderson Hills said the legislation, which would extend an existing “fast-track” procedure for approving new trade pacts, is “absolutely indispensable to this government’s capacity to negotiate.”

Currently, the United States is involved in two major sets of trade talks. One seeks a free-trade agreement with Mexico; the other is a global round of negotiations aimed at lowering trade barriers.

The global talks broke down last December during what had been planned as the final negotiating session in Brussels. However, they started again in recent days after the 12-nation European Community agreed to consider lowering its agricultural subsidies.

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On the face of it, the legislation that Bush submitted Friday was merely a procedural request to extend by two years an existing process under which Congress accepts or rejects trade agreements without being able to amend them.

In practice, however, losing the procedural fight could make it impossible for the United States to participate in talks, because foreign governments would be reluctant to strike deals with Administration negotiators knowing that they could be reversed by Congress.

Thus, opponents have two opportunities to kill a trade agreement--first, by denying negotiators the fast-track procedures and, second, by defeating the agreement itself.

The bill to extend the fast-track procedures is unlikely to come up for a vote on the House and Senate floors until May. Even so, introduction of the measure is the opening bell for a bitter fight that will pit an unlikely coalition of such erstwhile foes as organized labor, agricultural interests and environmentalists against the Bush Administration.

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Unions, for example, fear that lowering tariff barriers between this country and Mexico is an invitation for U.S. corporations to move their operations across the border so they can pay lower wages. The AFL-CIO’s top legislative priority, it has said, is blocking an agreement with Mexico.

Environmentalists contend that the pact will encourage a similar migration of American firms seeking to avoid U.S. laws regulating pollution.

Also likely to oppose the measure are industries--such as textiles and some agricultural products--that fear a flood of cheap imports if trade barriers are lowered.

In addition, protectionist pressures almost always rise in Congress as the economy weakens.

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