Election could derail administration's hopes for fast-track extension in '07

Candidates on the stump may talk more about the war in Iraq or illegal immigration, but the midterm election may hold as big a consequence for the administration’s trade agenda.

Congress next year will again take up so-called fast-track trade authority, which is set to expire next summer. If Democrats gain control of the House, where trade votes have been closer than in the Senate, the administration is likely to have a tougher time getting fast track extended.

The fight is “going to be a donnybrook,” said Hal Shapiro, a trade lobbyist at Miller & Chevalier who recently wrote a book on the political history of fast track.

“Trade used to be much more bipartisan consensus. The parties have different views on it now.”

Under fast track, or trade promotion authority (TPA), trade deals are guaranteed a vote. Lawmakers can’t offer amendments to the deals the administration sends them, a nod to their complexity and political sensitivity.

Prior to fast track, Congress had approved free trade agreements with only four countries. Since 2002, when fast track passed, just barely, the administration has negotiated and signed pacts with nine countries. 

Another seven bilateral deals and a regional package that would include five African nations are under discussion. Most are unlikely to be completed before summer when fast track expires.

Labor groups view the election as an opportunity to toughen labor standards in trade deals that the administration negotiates.

“If we see some major changes in Congress, you will have a very different dynamic around the fast track renewal,” said Thea Lee, AFL-CIO policy director.

The labor group is spending $40 million for voter drive to help pro-labor candidates in 21 states in part to impact trade deals. The labor group is paying particular attention to Ohio and Pennsylvania where a number of seats held by members who voted for free trade supporters are up for grabs.

Even with the divisions, however, sources don’t predict trade pacts to end, necessarily. Like other issues, trade debates don’t always follow party lines. Many Democrats supported administration-negotiated trade deals with Chile, Singapore and Australia.

Business lobbyists point out that the groups they represent are spending considerable resources to deflect labor attacks against the CAFTA 15 — Democrats who broke party ranks and voted yes on the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a business group, said trade deals are still likely to get done even with Democrats in change.

“This isn’t a spigot that gets turned on and off,” Cohen said.

Sean Spicer, a spokesman at the United States Trade Representative’s office, said the trade office has good relationships with the Democrats likely to play the biggest role in trade deals.

“Ambassador [Susan] Schwab has actively worked across party lines during her tenure on trade issues,” Spicer said.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is likely to takeover as chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee should Democrats gain the majority, has said he would seek more bipartisan consensus on trade and other issues. 

But Democrats in power would be better able to direct the administration to pay closer attention to labor and environmental issues when negotiating trade deals.

“Not so much a question of yes or no, it will be more of a ‘what’ question,” AFL-CIO’s Lee said.

Recently negotiated trade pacts usually require the country to adhere to its own labor laws. Labor groups want international labor standards to be the benchmark. Those standards include the freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the prohibition on child labor, forced labor and employment discrimination.

Business lobbyists worry that insisting on labor standards higher than those demanded by a country’s domestic laws could mean fewer trade pacts are signed, which they said would hurt countries that would otherwise be helped.

“There are consequences to elections,” one trade lobbyist said.

Even if Republicans retain their majorities fast track renewal isn’t an easy sell for the administration. In December 2001, House Republican leaders needed to convince then Rep. (now Sen.) Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to change his vote from no to yes after assurances that trade deals would contain certain protections for his state’s beleaguered textile industry.

The trade pact passed by just one vote.

“TPA is a ‘trust-me’ vote. The administration is saying to Congress: trust me,” said Nicole Venable, director of congressional and public affairs for international trade for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is a strong free trade supporter.

If Democrats take control of the House or the Senate, that could be an especially tough sell for the administration, Venable said.

“Can you see [Democrats] trusting the administration?”