President Clinton was forced to withdraw his embattled “fast-track” trade bill from the House floor early today to avoid an embarrassing legislative defeat, in all likelihood killing the measure for the year.
The decision to pull the bill came after midnight EST. House Republican leaders called the president to tell him that despite a full day of trying, they had been unable to secure enough votes to pass the bill.
Although administration officials suggested that the president might seek to have the House consider the measure again on Wednesday or Thursday, Republican leaders said privately that any such move would be “highly unlikely.”
“We frankly don’t have the votes at this point,” House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told reporters. “There were very principled disagreements on both sides. It probably . . . will go to the next year.”
Failure to revive the measure would represent a significant political blow to the president, and a potentially serious setback for U.S. prestige internationally.
U.S. officials have warned that defeat would send a signal to America’s trading partners that Washington is abandoning the free-trade posture it has embraced for the past 50 years. In addition, they fear it could have an adverse effect on global financial markets.
Rejection of fast-track by Congress would be a stunning victory for organized labor and environmentalists, who vigorously opposed the legislation. The AFL-CIO waged a million-dollar television campaign against the measure, and threatened to target House and Senate lawmakers who supported it.
At the time the president withdrew the bill, GOP leaders were counting between 160 and 170 of the House’s 228 Republicans as supporters of the bill, along with 42 of the 205 Democrats. A total of 218 votes would have been needed to assure passage if all members of the House were present.
As has been the case throughout the fast-track debate, Clinton’s biggest problem was with his own party. While Republicans garnered a handful of additional votes on Sunday, Democratic support actually shrank. The erosion of support reflected widespread distrust among liberal Democrats who complained that Clinton had not kept promises made in previous trade debates.
In the end, Republican strategists said they advised the president that it would be better for him to pull the bill entirely than to risk having the House proceed with the vote and formally defeat it.
“They’re worried about bringing it up and having it shot down,” one GOP strategist said. “Defeating it doesn’t send the right signals” to U.S. trading partners.
The fast-track developments came as, separately, Congress passed and sent to the president a bill designed to streamline the Food and Drug Administration’s procedures for approving drugs and medical devices.
The measure, enacted by both houses on Sunday, would extend a system under which pharmaceutical companies are assessed fees to help pay for speeding up the approval process.
The bill also expands access to potentially life-saving experimental drugs and gives drug companies incentives to do more research on drugs for children.
In addition, there were these developments:
* In a bid to finish the 1998 budget before it adjourns, the Senate approved a spending bill providing funding for foreign aid, the District of Columbia and the Departments of State, Commerce and Justice. The House was expected to take up the bill today.
* House and Senate negotiators worked out a compromise measure to provide states with $9.7 billion in temporary funding for highway, transit and safety programs while Congress debates long-term legislation.
Sunday marked the second time that Clinton had been forced to pull the fast-track legislation. Lawmakers initially had been scheduled to vote on the bill Friday, but postponed the balloting for lack of sufficient votes.
Many Republicans, as well as some Democratic supporters, blamed the president for the bill’s problems, complaining that he delayed too long in sending the bill to Capitol Hill and did not build enough popular support for the legislation.
Clinton had an opportunity to renew fast-track authority, which expired in 1994, two years ago, when it could have been passed relatively easily. But he passed up the opportunity on the advice of his aides.
The measure would provide Clinton with authority to begin broad new trade talks with other countries, with a guarantee that Congress would act quickly on any new pact without trying to rewrite specific provisions.
U.S. trading partners traditionally have refused to begin broad trade talks in the absence of such authority, for fear Congress will seek to renegotiate any new accords after they have been signed.
Although Congress has given fast-track authority to all U.S. presidents since 1974, organized labor has opposed the bill vehemently, threatening to help defeat any lawmaker who supports the measure this time around.
Labor leaders and environmentalists contend the bill would hurt American jobs, depress wages and pollute the environment. They want Congress to require the administration to include more safeguards in trade accords.
Administration policymakers--and most nonpartisan trade analysts--stress that the fast-track bill is not a trade accord, and that it only provides authority for the president to negotiate trade pacts with other countries.
The Senate already had voted, 69 to 31, in a key test vote last week to support the bill, and was expected to pass it easily once the House acted.
Unions and conservation groups had demanded that any new trade accords contain provisions enabling the White House to enforce environmental and labor standards in other nations, but Clinton--and the GOP--balked at that.
Instead, the fast-track legislation contained much narrower language enabling the White House to impose sanctions against another country only in cases where a violation would give it an unfair trade advantage.
The administration had wanted to use fast-track authority to complete global talks on trade in agriculture and financial services and to negotiate market-opening accords with Asian and Latin American countries.
U.S. officials said they also hoped to extend the North American Free Trade Agreement, now in force among the United States, Canada and Mexico, to include Chile--a step the United States promised two years ago.