The Senate voted 64-34 to give President Bush the trade promotion legislation, also known as fast track authority, that had eluded him for 18 months and his predecessor for most of his two terms in office.
The margin of victory in approving the Trade Promotion Authority conference report was larger than most observers had anticipated. The House passed the conference report by a vote of 215-212.
“I look forward to bringing some trade agreements back to Congress that will help workers and farmers and ranchers,” the president said in a telephone call to Senate leaders following the vote, which came as the Senate prepared to leave Washington for its August recess.
Farm groups such as the National Corn Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation hailed the votes while others, including the National Farmers Union and the American Corn Growers Association, criticized it, arguing that the Bush administration should work on improving existing trade agreements.
“With TPA, the president can negotiate trade agreements with world leaders that not only open more export markets for corn, but also for value-added corn products, such as meat, poultry, corn gluten feed, corn syrup and biodegradable plastics,” said National Corn Growers President Tim Hume.
“TPA increases market choice and reduces costs for American farmers, workers, consumers and businesses — while protecting U.S. corn growers from unfair subsidies being levied to benefit our competitors.”
The authority to negotiate trade agreements and submit them for an up-or-down vote in the Senate expired during former President Clinton's first term in 1994. Efforts to extend fast track authority failed in 1997 and 1998 because Democrats were concerned about the effect of NAFTA and similar agreements on U.S. workers.
Earlier, Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman had urged the Senate not to wait on approving trade promotion authority.
“This trade negotiation authority is needed now,” he said. “With negotiations well under way in the World Trade Organization, the United States cannot afford to delay TPA any longer.”
Hume congratulated the Senate for passing this important piece of legislation before it recessed on Aug. 2. “The Senate has the foresight to realize that the president needs the authority to negotiate trade agreements in order to enhance export markets for U.S. products.”
National Farmers Union leaders, meanwhile, had asked senators to reject the measure.
“The legislation fails to address the major issues effecting U.S. agriculture's international competitiveness, such as exchange rates, currency valuations and labor and environmental standards,” NFU President Dave Frederickson said.
He cited the administration's recent World Trade Organization proposal for agriculture as an example of how TPA would be detrimental to domestic producers. “It could cut assistance provided in the recently passed farm bill, and it could weaken domestic trade remedy protections against the unfair trade practices of other countries.”
American Corn Growers Association officials said farmers' experience with earlier trade agreements do not bode well for the expanded negotiating authority that TPA would give the present and future administrations.
“The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has devastated farmers from the wheat fields of Canada to the corn fields of Mexico and from the tomato patches of Florida to the milking parlors of California,” said Keith Dittrich, the ACGA's president.
“And until we can accomplish a major overhaul of NAFTA to ensure that it is fair for farmers and farm workers and that it helps sustain family farms and the rural economy, ACGA will oppose the negotiation and ratification of the expansion of that trade agreement.”
Dittrich said trade agreements have forced American corn farmers to relinquish 68 percent of their buying power in their pursuit of “mythical increases in exports which were, in turn, promised to bring prosperity to rural America and lower food prices to America's consumers.”
The NFU's Frederickson also complained that the House-Senate conference committee dropped from the TPA report a Senate amendment designed to protect domestic trade remedy laws. It also weakened trade adjustment assistance language originally adopted by the Senate.
Frederickson was referring to the Dayton-Craig amendment, a provision in the earlier Senate bill that would have allowed senators to reject any part of a trade agreement that weakened U.S. anti-dumping laws. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., one of its authors, said he would oppose the conference report.
Conferees reportedly agreed to a compromise provision that would provide financial assistance that would enable workers who lose their jobs due to new trade agreements to maintain health insurance coverage, but not the level of assistance in the original Senate bill.
The bill reportedly includes a 10-year, $12 billion provision to help workers who lose their jobs because of new trade agreements adopted using the Fast Track procedure in which such agreements must be voted on without amendment.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, defended the conferees action, saying the trade promotion authority bill took “a big step forward” on labor and environmental issues by requiring U.S. negotiators to push for commitments in future trade pacts that countries would not weaken their laws in those areas to gain an advantage.
“We didn't give the president a blank check — far from it,” he said. “This bill makes Congress a full partner in trade.”