President to request fast track next week

President Bush will ask Congress to extend fast-track negotiating authority in one of two speeches on the economy next week, according to administration sources, after choosing not to make the request in his State of the Union address.

President Bush will ask Congress to extend fast-track negotiating authority in one of two speeches on the economy next week, according to administration sources, after choosing not to make the request in his State of the Union address.

Without fast track, which expires at the end of June, the administration would lose the ability to send free-trade agreements to Congress for up-or-down votes. This would make it virtually impossible for the administration to negotiate bilateral deals or a World Trade Organization agreement it is trying to conclude.

The White House intends to announce more details of next week’s economic speeches today, according to White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto. He said President Bush intends to get his trade agenda completed, and this would include a continuation of fast track.

The president asked Congress to renew fast track in his State of the Union addresses in 2001 and 2002, but wanted the 2007 address to focus on other issues, including subjects such as healthcare and energy that might provide more common ground with Democrats, Fratto said. He added that Bush wants to speak more expansively about trade and other economic issues, and said the State of the Union address would not have allowed this.

Business lobbyists said they were not disappointed, even though the president mentioned trade only once in the 6,000-word address. They said the administration appeared to be taking a pragmatic approach to dealing with a Congress that could be hostile to the administration’s trade agenda.

Asking for a fast-track extension in the State of the Union address would have been an “in-your-face” gesture that would not have improved the atmosphere for actually winning an extension, according to Nicole Venable of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which she said would likely lead business efforts to extend fast track with the Business Roundtable.

Venable said the administration’s approach will allow discussions between U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and other key Democrats to evolve, which could create a better climate for the approval of a new fast-track law that will have to differ from the current law to be approved.

Opposition to the administration’s trade agenda was highlighted in the Democratic response to the State of the Union delivered by freshman Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who is one of several new Democrats seen as critical of free-trade policies.

“Our manufacturing base is being dismantled and sent overseas,” said Webb, who added that workers “expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.”

Venable said conversations between the administration and congressional Democrats have yet to kick into gear. Schwab met Rangel, ranking member Jim McCrery (R-La.) and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) last week to discuss the trade agenda, which a committee spokesman described as a listening session. Levin, in a release, expressed disappointment that the president had not mentioned the challenges of globalization.

Rangel still plans to organize a retreat for committee members and Schwab, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other administration officials on economic issues, but no date for that meeting has been set.  Ways and Means has also scheduled a hearing on trade and globalization on Jan. 30.

A new fast-track law will have to be shaped to fit the positions of Rangel and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has said Congress should renew fast track with some changes. A spokeswoman for Baucus said he has no concrete plans to introduce legislation extending fast track at this time.

Fratto said the administration believes it can find common ground with Democrats worried about rising economic populism in their party.

Delaying the request also gives U.S. negotiators more time to craft a possible deal in the current round of World Trade Organization talks launched in 2001, Venable and other business- and farm-group lobbyists said. This could be used as an incentive to get Congress to extend fast track, since other WTO members would be unlikely to negotiate seriously with the U.S. if a deal could be amended by Congress.

National Foreign Trade Council President William Reinsch said Congress is unlikely to grant the Bush administration a fast-track extension unless there is some tangible trade deal that will not be completed without it. Getting an extension “requires an engine, and the engine is getting the round going,” Reinsch said. “If you don’t, people are going to say they’re busy. Why waste time on negotiating [fast track] if there’s not going to be a deal to negotiate?”

The Doha round has been sputtering for years, but efforts have stepped up in recent weeks, partly because the U.S. sees progress in the round as giving it leverage in the upcoming fight over a new farm bill. Administration officials have been consulting with agriculture-group representatives to weigh their views on a possible agreement with the European Union in which the U.S. would agree to reduce its farm subsidies in exchange for the EU reducing tariffs on farm goods.

One agriculture lobbyist said the U.S. and EU appear to be within “spitting distance” of an agreement, but cautioned that a preliminary deal between the U.S. and EU would still have to be sold to other WTO members.

If the administration reaches a tentative deal on basic figures for reducing agriculture tariffs and subsidies, it could present an argument to Congress that a fast-track extension is necessary to conclude a multilateral round, which would be the first completed since the Uruguay Round in 1994. Schwab has acknowledged it would be impossible to conclude WTO talks under current fast-track authority.

Some observers believe the administration could also cast blame on congressional Democrats for blocking a multilateral deal if they oppose extending fast track. However, Venable and Reinsch, who both worked in the Clinton administration, said they do not think the Bush administration is driven on fast track by political calculations, but by the desire to move forward on trade. Venable said she does not think anyone is “so sinister” as to be figuring out an endgame of blame for the fast-track fight.