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
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
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
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
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
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