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.”