Labor pushes Dems to deny Bush extension of authority

The AFL-CIO, United Autoworkers and other groups representing organized labor are pressing Democrats to deny the Bush administration an extension of its authority to send free-trade deals to Congress for up or down votes, partly by reminding lawmakers of the role trade played in Democrats’ re-taking of majorities in the House and Senate.

The AFL-CIO, United Autoworkers and other groups representing organized labor are pressing Democrats to deny the Bush administration an extension of its authority to send free-trade deals to Congress for up or down votes, partly by reminding lawmakers of the role trade played in Democrats’ re-taking of majorities in the House and Senate.

“We’re going to be talking to members of Congress extensively about why it would be a huge mistake to give this administration the authority,” UAW’s legislative director, Alan Reuther, said.

Labor groups already helped organize a letter to House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) from 39 members of the freshman House Democratic class that said the “vocal stand against the administration’s misguided trade agenda” was vital to their electoral success.

AFL-CIO Assistant Director for International Economics Thea Lee said the group is “flat-out opposed” to extending the existing fast-track authority, which expires at the end of June, and sees an extension limited to allowing the Bush administration to finish negotiations on the current World Trade Organization talks, known as the Doha round, as a non-starter.

“I definitely don’t trust the Bush administration to negotiate a good Doha round,” said Lee, who charged that issues such as labor rights and currency manipulation are not being discussed seriously in the talks. 

Lee does not completely rule out fast track for the Bush administration, but said the policy would have to be overhauled fundamentally from the existing authority. Noting the letter from freshman Democrats to Rangel, she said last year’s elections have placed labor in a strengthened position for battles over trade policy this year.

Organized-labor groups were among top financial contributors to many of the new Democrats elected in November. For example, labor political action committees (PACs) contributed $247,200 to the campaign of Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), and $265,500 to Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.). PACs representing labor groups gave $215,000 to Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who with Sutton helped organize the letter from freshman Democrats to Rangel.

The pressure from labor is important because of possible splits within the Democratic Party on trade, including the possible extension of fast track requested by President Bush last week.

For example, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) called on Congress to approve a new fast-track law with some modifications in a column in The Wall Street Journal at the beginning of January, and last week described fast track as vital to U.S. trade. Rangel also has been open to considering a fast-track extension, but has stressed that Congress must first receive assurances on how the administration would use it.

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, has been more explicit in setting out conditions on extending fast track. He told The Hill last week that meaningful discussions on fast track cannot start until after the administration renegotiates labor provisions in three pending deals with Latin American countries to the satisfaction of congressional Democrats. Levin also wants the administration to persuade South Korea to agree in free-trade talks to end practices that he said prevent U.S. autos and auto parts from being exported to that country

“There is no question there are divisions within the Democratic Party over the trade issue,” Lee said.

In the end, business representatives are hopeful that Rangel will be the key player on trade among House Democrats. “At the end of the day, if we’re going to move the trade agenda forward, Charlie Rangel is going to have to sign off on it,” the director of international trade policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, Christopher Wenk, said.

Wenk said House Democrats will want to find some issues, such as trade, where they can work with business.

Another business source noted that tax and healthcare issues could pose even greater problems for Rangel in trying to reach a compromise with committee Republicans and the administration. The source said trade is an issue on which Rangel might be able to forge a middle-ground consensus with Republicans, which would allow Rangel to show he is chairing Ways and Means differently from his predecessor, former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who was charged with shutting Democrats out of the legislative process and passing legislation with all Republican support.

Two committee aides said committee Republicans and Democrats have a shared desire to reach a compromise on trade, and agreed that finding common ground there could be easier than on healthcare and tax policy. They also emphasized, however, that the challenges remain significant.

Some key Democratic figures, including former President Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling, have already spoken out in favor of at least extending fast track to allow the Bush administration to complete the Doha talks. During a hearing on trade and globalization last week, Sperling warned Ways and Means members that Congress could be seen as killing Doha if it did not extend fast track. Alluding to global warming and the Iraq war, he said this would contribute to international sentiment that the U.S. is intent on taking a unilateral approach to global issues.

Lee said such arguments might sound good to the Brookings Institution, a centrist Democratic think tank, but will not play well in the heartland. She said granting the administration a short-term extension of fast track to conclude Doha should be a non-starter for Congress.