At 3:28 a.m. Saturday, with senior members of Congress decrying the legislation before them as a “fraud” and a “hoax,” the United States House of Representatives voted by a razor-thin margin of three votes to grant the Bush administration authority to secretly negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.
“This night will be remembered as one of the largest surrenders of Constitutional authority in American history,” said US Rep. David Bonior, D-Michigan, as the House voted by a 215-212 to allow the president to engage in Fast Track negotiations to create a North American Free Trade Agreement-style corporate trading zone that would include virtually every country in the western Hemisphere.
The 215 supporters of the bill included 190 Republicans and 25 Democrats; while 183 Democrats, 27 Republicans and two Independents opposed it. Seven members did not participate in the vote.
Though organized labor has fought for years to block Fast Track legislation – and passionately opposed this bill – several of the members who cast critical votes in its favor were Democrats who had been elected with strong labor support, including California’s Susan Davis, Washington state’s Richard Larsen and Utah’s Jim Matheson.
The House vote was seen as the critical test for the current bill, since an earlier version of Fast Track passed the House in December by a one-vote margin. The Senate passed an alternative version of the legislation this year by a wide margin. The differences in the House and Senate bills required a Conference Committee headed by free-trade enthusiasts from both parties – House Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Thomas, R-California, and Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus, D-Montana – to craft a so-called “compromise.” With House consideration now done, the Senate is expected to pass the compromise bill next week, clearing the way for President Bush to become the first president in almost a decade to possess Fast Track authority.
Going into Saturday morning’s vote in the House, both sides knew the margin would be exceptionally close. This raised the intensity of the debate to a level rarely seen in Congress.
A particular bone of contention was the fact that most members had not had time to read the measure they were voting on.
The most important trade and economic vote by the current Congress came just hours after members received emails telling them they could review the 304-page bill on a Congressional web site. The House had to employ the so-called “Martial Law” rule in order to waive the requirement that members get at least one day to review legislation.
Even members who often support free trade measures complained that they were being asked to pass omnibus legislation without sufficient consideration.
Rep. James McDermott, D-Washington, bitterly accused the bill’s chief House sponsor, Ways and Means Committee Thomas, of hiding the legislation from members until it was too late for a serious review of its contents. Rep. Robert Matsui, D-California, a 12-term veteran of the House with many years experience on the Ways and Means Committee, decried the fact that most members would vote on the dramatic piece of legislation “sight unseen.”