After the U.S. House of Representatives voted by one vote last December to grant President Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas, the White House was convinced that the issue was settled. So too were many of activists who had poured their time and energy into opposing Fast Track.
Because they are much more likely to feel the brunt of grassroots lobbying at the district level, House members have since the early 1990s been more dubious about trade deals than members of the Senate. So when the House buckled under intense rally-round-the-flag pressure from the White House in December, it appeared to many Washington observers that Bush would have what Bill Clinton did not: free reign to negotiate away workers rights, family-farm protections, environmental regulations and basic democratic principles in order to create a corporation-friendly free trade zone encompassing most of the entire western Hemisphere.
But appearances were deceiving. Fast Track ended up on the slow track in a Senate controlled by Democrats who were in no rush to do Bush any major favors. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus, D-Montana, generally side with Wall Street against Main Street on trade issues. But they resisted White House pressure for quick action on the issue just long enough to allow critics of corporate-dictated free trade schemes to raise serious objections to letting Bush negotiate a voluminous FTAA arrangement and then force the Congress to accept or reject the deal in a simple up-or-down vote.
Even Daschle and Baucus were surprised this week when the appeal of those objections became evident. By a voice vote Tuesday, the Senate approved a major amendment to the Fast Track resolution that the Bush administration had warned could earn a presidential veto.
The amendment, written by Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton and Idaho Republican Larry Craig, was described by its sponsors as a move to preserve the right of American businesses, workers, and farmers to challenge unfair and illegal trade practices that threaten their livelihoods and their ability to enjoy the benefits of free and fair trade. It does this by creating an exception to the bar on congressional changes to trade agreements contained in the expedited Trade Promotion Authority ratification procedure that -- despite efforts by the Bush administration to change the name -- is still broadly described as "Fast Track."
Under the Dayton-Craig exception, senators would be allowed to strike any part of an FTAA pact that changes U.S. "trade remedy" rules. Often referred to as "anti-dumping laws," trade remedy rules allow the U.S. government to protect U.S.-based producers against unfair competition from foreign corporations that "dump" goods on the U.S. market at below the price of production. The Bush administration angered many senators when, after more than 60 senators signed a letter opposing the surrender of such protections, United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick volunteered to do just that at last year's World Trade Organization ministerial in Qatar.
This week, Zoellick pulled out all the stops to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. In addition to lobbying Congress, he organized a press briefing at which he and other free-trade advocates said the amendment would undermine the ability of the administration to reach meaningful trade agreements using the Fast Track authority. "You can't be for this amendment and for free trade," squealed Zoellick.
The problem for Zoellick is that he is no longer a trusted figure in the Senate. After volunteering in Qatar that he was willing to negotiate away protections for U.S. industrial workers and farmers, even Republican senators are wary of entrusting the Enron advisor with the authority to negotiate a trade agreement that would include every western Hemisphere country except Cuba and cover an area stretching from the Tundra to Tierra del Fuego.
Conscious of the credibility gap Zoellick had opened, the administration pulled in the second string -- Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman joined Zoellick in dispatching threatening to recommend that President Bush veto Fast Track legislation if it includes the Dayton-Craig amendment. "If the Senate declares trade laws 'off-limits' for negotiations, the United States will not be able to press other countries to bring their trade laws up to U.S. standards," the Bush aides warned. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer dutifully declared that the president might indeed refuse to sign a trade bill that actually directed Zoellick not to negotiate away protections for U.S. workers and farmers.
"It essentially emasculates trade promotion authority and renders all of our work useless," grumbled Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a group that -- despite its name -- promotes the interests of multinational corporations first and U.S. manufacturers second.
Senators were not swayed by any of the threats or warnings. Arguing against the administration's demand that it be given complete control over the definition of what goes into trade agreements, Dayton replied: "Under our Constitution, we do not permit one person -- no matter who he or she is -- to bargain away our laws. No one, not even the president, has that authority. No one who understands our Constitution should seek that authority."
While that principle was asserted strongly in the debate, it was a more specific distrust for the Bush administration's push to ditch protections for U.S. workers and farmers that brought a number of Republicans with records of voting for free-trade measures into alliance with progressive Democratic critics of corporate-dictated trade policies. The odd coalition held together when administration allies in the Senate attempted to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. That move was thwarted by a 61-38 margin, and the Senate quickly adopted the measure by a voice vote.
The next day, the Senate added two more amendments the administration doesn't like -- one by Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone to require a study of the impact of free trade on labor conditions, and another by North Carolina's John Edwards to provide additional aid for textile communities in the Carolinas that have been ravaged by free trade. These amendments -- along with an earlier one sponsored by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan directing the U.S. Trade Representative to renegotiate portions of the North American Free Trade Agreement that allow corporations to use trade rules to undermine U.S. laws -- mean that the Senate version of Fast Track is likely to be exceptionally unattractive to the White House.
So, will Fast Track now be stabbed to death by George W. Bush's veto pen? Not necessarily.
The Senate is still debating Fast Track, and additional amendments could be added. Next week, the Senate will probably give approval to a version of Fast Track that is substantially different from the one passed by the House. Then a House-Senate Conference committee will try to reconcile the bills. Montana Democrat Baucus, who is all-but-certain to have a place on the conference committee, voted to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. Baucus can be expected to work with House Republicans to try and craft a new version of Fast Track that significantly weakens or eliminates the Dayton-Craig provision. The version of the bill that comes out of the conference committee will go back to the House and the Senate for new votes.
The key here is that prospect of another House vote. The Bush administration pulled out all the stops last fall to gain a one vote majority in the House for Fast Track. That win for the White House came after Republican representatives from the Carolinas were pressured personally by the president to back the measure. Now that several of those representatives are facing tough reelection fights --in large part because they sided with the administration -- they are unlikely to vote again for Fast Track.
The prospect of a new House vote has coalitions of labor, environmental, religious and human rights groups mobilizing opposition in Washington and around the country. Suddenly, the issue is back in play. And the prospect that Congress might yet thwart the Bush administration's chief initiative on behalf of its corporate contributors seems real enough to merit a major ramping up of activism by the AFL-CIO and other groups.
The first test will be the Senate vote on Fast Track. And while that may be the highest hurdle, some activists are trying to leap it.
On Tuesday, in Burlington, Vermont, local activists occupied the office of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, Independent-Vermont, in an effort to convince the senator to abandon his support for Fast Track. They locked themselves down in the office and, after talking with Jeffords by phone, were arrested by local police on trespassing charges.
Referring to Jeffords' decision a year ago to quit the Republican Party and caucus with the Democrats, Vermont organic farmer S'ra DeSantis, one of the activists, said, "It is appalling to me that a so-called 'Independent Senator' who did so much to take power away from the President and the Republicans is now giving back that power for the sake of free trade. If Senator Jeffords votes in favor of Fast Track he will be giving power to the president and big corporations and further undermine democracy in this country. A vote against Fast Track is a vote for democracy, family farmers, environmental protection, and working people."