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Fast Tracks backers use September 11

by John Nichols Monday, Oct. 08, 2001 at 5:39 AM

Trading on Terror: Fast Tracks backers use September 11 to renew free-trade push.

Moving to exploit a shifting political landscape in the

aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World

Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush's

Congressional point man on free trade issues has announced

that he will attempt to ram a Fast Track bill through the Congress as

soon as next week.

Bush's demand that Congress grant him unrestricted "Fast Track"

authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas

appeared to be in serious political trouble before September 11. But,

after several weeks of attempting to equate support for the trade

legislation as a test of patriotism, the Bush administration and its

Congressional allies are now moving to force a dramatic confrontation on

the issue.

House Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Thomas, R-Cal., unveiled

a "Trade Promotion Authority" bill Wednesday afternoon and declared

that he will push for a committee vote on the legislation Friday. Though

he has yet to receive a go-ahead from House Speaker Dennis Hastert,

R-Ill., Thomas says that if the Ways and Means Committee approves his

bill he wants to see a rapid vote by the full House. Bush aides and their

Congressional allies are betting that, if the Thomas measure is packaged

as a component of Bush's overall response to terrorist threats and

international instability, they will be able to brow beat even skeptical

Democrats into backing it.

But there are already signs that the Bush camp is going to have a serious

fight on its hands. The AFL-CIO and its members unions have geared up

a major push to block action on the bill. The labor federation restarting its

toll-free number for Fast Track foes to call Congress (1-800-393-1082),

the Sierra Club has issues a national action alert to its members, and key

Democratic players on trade issues are voicing loud objections to the

strategy of linking trade with the terrorism fight.

"Piggybacking Fast Track onto our nation's reawakened patriotic fervor,"

argued U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, should be called what it is:

"shabby political profiteering."

The fury in Kaptur's words illustrates why Thomas' move is a

high-stakes gamble.

Fast Track remains unpopular not just with most Democrats but with

many members of his own party. Opposed by labor, environmental and

human rights group because it would eliminate the ability of Congress to

amend or moderate anti-worker, environmentally risky and undemocratic

components of trade deals reached by the Bush administration, Fast

Track has long been the top legislative priority of multinational

corporations and their lobbying associations. With Fast Track authority,

Bush would be freed to negotiate a borderless business zone from South

America to Antarctica -- creating a circumstance Public Citizen Global

Trade Watch director Lori Wallach has described as "NAFTA on

steroids."

No surprise, then, that the Business Roundtable was praising Thomas'

move as soon as it was announced. Seizing on the fact that a handful of

Democrats who have long backed the corporate free-trade agenda are

backing the Thomas bill, the Roundtable declared it a "fair and bipartisan

compromise."

But key Democratic players on trade issues, including some who have

backed free-trade measures in the past, remain furious as U.S. Trade

Representative Bob Zoellick's public pronouncements suggesting that it

was a patriotic duty of House members to give up their ability to

influence trade negotiations.

The ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, New York's

Charles Rangel, last week dispatched a blistering letter in which he

dismissed Zoellick's "Countering Terrorism With Trade" rhetoric as

political posturing of the worst sort. "Mr. Zoellick clearly is using the

attack and its aftermath as leverage to pressure Democrats to support

giving the president Fast Track authority," argued Rangel. "But this war

is not about passing Fast Track trade authority." Teamsters union

President James Hoffa, who has worked with the administration on

several issues in recent months, now says he is "outraged that U.S.

Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and members of Congress are

planning to take advantage of the September 11 crisis to ram fast-track

trade legislation through the House..." And two Democrats with histories

of supporting free-trade measures, Michigan's Sander Levin and

California's Robert Matsui, joined Rangel last week in blasting Thomas'

labeling of his latest fast-track proposal as a "Bipartisan Compromise."

Arguing that Thomas' proposal was neither "bipartisan" nor a

"compromise," the trio bluntly declared that, "Bringing up a Fast Track

bill at this time would disrupt the current bipartisan approach to

legislation..."

Despite the force of that language, foes of Fast Track still worry that

Levin might cut a deal with Thomas -- as he did during the 2000 debate

on granting China permanent normal trade relations. But House Minority

Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Senate Majority Leader Tom

Daschle, D-SD, have indicated that they oppose linking Fast Track to

economic stimulus legislation, and have warned that bringing up the

divisive issue could wreck the spirit of bipartisanship that has been seen

in Congress since September 11.

"Just because Americans believe in eradicating terrorism does not mean

they want to keep exporting good-paying jobs and undermining our

nation's manufacturing and agricultural sectors," argues Kaptur, who

says the administration's Fast Track agenda "is the way to a weaker

American economy and a growing divide between the world's rich and

poor."

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