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A Political Tap Dance to Preserve Fast Track : Bush tenders concessions to labor, environmentalists

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President Bush has made much of the big gains to be derived from a free-trade agreement with Mexico, but said little about the pain that could result. Congressional leaders have been pressing the President to face up to some of the less-rosy realities if he wants more time to negotiate the trade pact. He apparently got the message.

Wednesday the President pledged to take specific steps to protect U.S. workers and the environment if a Mexican free-trade pact is worked out. The move should go a long way toward allaying Congressional concerns that threaten to jeopardize the Administration’s ambitious plan for a North American free-trade system that will include Canada as well as Mexico.

THE CONCESSION: The Administration’s four-pronged response marks a major concession to vocal opponents of the trade pact, who have made the politically potent argument that free trade would come at the expense of U.S. jobs and the environment. Unions and environmentalists united in a lobby that Congress found hard to ignore. Bush thus faces a contentious Congress in his bid for a two-year extension of a “fast track” procedure to negotiate new trade agreements. Bush said such authority was crucial, not just to the regional free-trade agreement but also to a new global trade agreement being negotiated in Geneva. Under fast track, the President can negotiate international trade agreements while Congress’ authority to change them is limited. The authority renews automatically June 1 for two years unless either the House or Senate blocks it.

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Congressional leaders on trade policy had been seeking assurances from the Administration that environmental and labor issues would be included in the free-trade negotiations if fast track was renewed.

The President outlined his commitment in letters to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, (D-Ill.), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) and House Majority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo). Bentsen credited Bush with making “significant concessions.” And, at first glance, it does appear that the President budged just enough to give most members of Congress the political cover they need to vote for free trade without being attacked as anti-labor or anti-ecology. That was wise. Bush promised a gradual elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers on import-sensitive goods to minimize dislocation of U.S. workers; a commitment to working with Congress to ensure an adequately-funded worker adjustment program for Americans who may lose their jobs as a result of an agreement with Mexico; and a memorandum of understanding between the two nations that provides for joint action on labor issues including health, working conditions and child labor.

THE NON-ISSUE: On the environment, Bush pledged that the agreement will maintain this country’s right to exclude products that do not meet U.S. health and safety standards. The United States also would maintain the right to impose stringent standards on pesticides, energy conservation and toxic waste. However, the President did not require, as some environmentalists demanded, that Mexico clean up its own environment. That’s a non-issue anyway. Mexico is already trying to clean up its environment, and doesn’t need well-meaning, if grumpy, gringos to tell it how. What it does need is robust economic growth to pay for the cleanup; more business with its neighbor, and biggest trading partner, will help it get that.

Congress is well aware that exports have been, and are expected to remain, the engine for economic growth in this country, too. Bush has given Congress his “personal commitment to close bipartisan cooperation in the negotiations.” Congress must now give him the authority to made good on those promises.

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