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Fri, May 24, 2002 - Page 21 News List

US Senate ready to approve trade bill

SPEED Lawmakers are on the verge of approving a so-called `fast-track' law that will give the US president the authority to negotiate trade accords that can't be amended


The US Senate signaled its readiness to back legislation that would grant President George W. Bush more power to negotiate trade accords by agreeing to shut off debate on the bill.

Sixty-eight senators voted to limit debate on the trade-promotion authority, or "fast-track," bill to 30 hours and are expected to approve the measure tomorrow. The legislation may be derailed when the Senate and House of Representatives try to reconcile competing versions of the bill, some lawmakers said.

"We're very happy, very excited that it looks like it's going to pass," said Sarah Fogarty, trade director at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents companies including Anheuser-Busch Cos and Welch Foods Inc. "There are a lot of cats and dogs that will need to be cleaned up in the [House-Senate] conference."

The bill will give the president authority to negotiate trade accords that Congress can't amend. Bush said that will boost a new round of WTO talks aimed at opening global markets from food to banking, as well as an agreement to dismantle trade barriers throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The WTO round would add US$700 billion to global commerce if it succeeds, according to a University of Michigan study, while the Free Trade Area of the Americas would open a US$13 trillion market of 800 million consumers to unfettered trade.

Both negotiations are scheduled to conclude by 2005.

The president has called trade-promotion authority a top priority. Its passage is backed by companies ranging from Boeing Co to Caterpillar Inc. to Procter & Gamble Co, and opposed by labor unions, many steelmakers and textile companies.

Bush has said that without fast-track authority, US trading partners will be reluctant to negotiate market-opening agreements in good faith for fear lawmakers will change their terms. With fast-track, Congress can only vote to approve or reject agreements.

His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters traveling with the president in Europe that today's vote "has been a long time coming. This brings prospects for more free trade one step closer."

Senators fought off a series of amendments which White House officials said would undermine the measure. Those included health insurance for retired steel workers, an attempt to limit government liability in lawsuits from investors whose property is expropriated, and income support for textile workers.

One change accepted by senators -- over the threat of a presidential veto -- would remove from fast-track consideration any provision of an agreement that changes US laws aimed at combating unfair trade.

Once the measure passes the Senate, it will need to be reconciled with a version that passed the House of Representatives by a single vote in December.

The House-Senate conference will have to wrestle with differences in the two bills. The Senate version includes more money for workers and the provision potentially taking US unfair-trade laws off the negotiating table.

The legislation the House passed by a single vote in December has more generous trade preferences for Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

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