President Clinton and Big Labor fired the first salvos in the latest battle over free trade Tuesday.
Clinton sent proposed legislation to Congress on Tuesday giving him “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade agreements, then led his negotiators to Capitol Hill, hoping to build a coalition of business-oriented Republicans and reluctant Democrats to support the bill.
At the same time, AFL-CIO officials unveiled a $1 million-a-week radio and television advertising campaign against the legislation.
Clinton credited expanding global trade as a driving force in the nation’s economic growth in the past five years. “Today, at the pinnacle of that strength, America must choose whether to advance or to retreat,” he said.
Faced with loud opposition from key Democratic constituencies - unions and environmentalists - the administration still opted to work with the Republican majority on the bill and rejected much of the Democratic advice to include protection for human rights, labor and the environment in the proposed bill.
The legislation set off an angry response from Democrats and organized labor, which announced an aggressive attack including a radio and television campaign targeted at 14 undecided members of Congress who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement four years ago.
Fast-track authority sets time limits for negotiating trade agreements, then requires Congress to vote for or against any pact without making any amendments.
That process was established in 1974 and was used for approving both NAFTA and the latest round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Clinton let fast-track authority expire three years ago rather than reopen the wounds of the NAFTA battle.
Now, Clinton wants it renewed, but negotiations became stalemated over how to protect workers’ rights and the environment. Clinton’s proposal to enforce them through the World Trade Organization and the International Labor Organization and through independently negotiated agreements was dismissed by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “The language is the language we’ve heard before. We’ve been down that road.”
Administration officials covered Capitol Hill on Tuesday, and late in the afternoon, Clinton addressed House Democrats. But House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., repeated his opposition to the measure.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, called the bill “a constructive start,” but House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said, “It will be a tough job getting the votes.”