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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 18:45 GMT
Bush wants more trade powers
US President George W. Bush
US President George W. Bush wants to boost US trade
By David Schepp, BBC News Online's North America business reporter.

Republican Senators have proposed giving US President George W Bush greater powers to make foreign trade deals, something they denied his predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton.

Mr Bush needs the renewed trade authority to secure the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

The authority would also enable his administration to make trade deals with other countries with less interference from Congress.

Opposition

But Congressional Democrats won't be so quick to grant the new president such so-called trade-promotion authority.

They say voters worry about issues such as working conditions in foreign factories and environmental degradation.

The Democrats are also disturbed by a provision in the bill that would bundle together a number of trade measures in the hope of bulldozing the legislation through Congress.

Democrats, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle and other members of the Senate Finance Committee, have written to Mr Bush to complain.

Street battles

This may seem like nothing more than the everyday squabbles between the left and the right in US politics.

But, in fact, it could become the next great battle issue among people opposed to free trade.

Public protests, such as the riots seen in Seattle in 1999 and in Prague in 2000 during meetings of the World Trade Organisation, could erupt again over Bush's powers.

Trade battles

Mr Bush has asked for more deal-making powers on trade issues, also known as fast-track negotiating authority, so that he can quickly enter into agreements with other nations.

Fast-track authority means that Congress must vote on any trade deal as a package rather than on each part of a deal.

The aim would be to remove Congress' ability to delay deals by calling for amendments.

Mr Bush will travel to Quebec City next month to attend the Summit of the Americas in the hope of beginning the process of improving trade relations in the region.

Latin and Central American nations have been reeling economically in the absence of concrete trade deals with the US.

Clinton's powers

Mr Bush has the backing of Senator Pat Roberts from Kansas who introduced a bill on Thursday that would grant the president the trade-promotion authority.

Bill Clinton enjoyed fast-track until 1994 when temporary permission given to him expired.

Mr Clinton tried in vain to get Congress to let him have his trade deal-making powers back.

But lawmakers were concerned that trade liberalisation could raise a host of volatile issues, including labour disputes and environmental concerns.

Permanent powers

Senator Roberts wants the President's trade deal-making ability to become permanent.

The US has slipped far behind other countries in striking trade deals during the last six years after Clinton's authority expired.

"As the US economy begins to weaken, we must do all that we can to remain competitive in the global marketplace," Senator Roberts said.

"It is imperative that Congress gives the executive branch every tool possible to aggressively pursue new trade agreements."

Senator Roberts' proposal would mirror the 1988 law that created the fast-track authority that expired in 1994.

It would also officially rename it, calling it "trade promotion authority."

Farm concerns

Senator Roberts is motivated by new trade agreements made by the European Union, Canada and Japan, which hurt farmers in his state.

"To American farmers, many of whom are already struggling, exports represent about 25% of gross farm income," Senator Roberts said, noting that since fast-track expired, agriculture exports have fallen.

Fellow Republican Charles Grassley, from nearby Iowa, endorsed the bill.

He chairs the Senate Finance Committee that oversees trade agreements.

"This legislation met the criteria I want to see," Senator Grassley said.

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