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 with 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 browbeat 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 member unions have geared up a major push to block action on the bill. The labor federation has restarted its toll-free number for foes of Fast Track to call Congress (1-800-393-1082), the Sierra Club has issued 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 US Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, should be called what it is: “shabby political profiteering.”

The fury in Kaptur’s words illustrates why Thomas’s 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 groups 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’s 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 US 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 US 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’s labeling of his latest fast-track proposal as a “bipartisan compromise.” Arguing that Thomas’s 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.”