Bipartisanship fell short in trade authority voting

Like Barry Bonds on a home-run streak, President Bush has been slugging 'em over the fence in the decisionmaking arena here of late, thanks to an unprecedented-in-modern-times wave of bipartisanship in Congress following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The doors of the Treasury have pretty much been flung wide, as every conceivable measure is taken to put the hurt on Osama bin Laden and his thugs and to institute measures to thwart more terrorism. The military establishment, which for the past couple of decades has had hat in hand to try and find funds to patch planes together and maintain some semblance of troop strength, now is like kids at Christmas, with Congress and the administration eager to thrust vast amounts of money at them.

And in what has to be one of the ironies of the age, airlines that have spent the last couple of decades espousing free enterprise and government laisséz faire, all the while building monopolies, fixing prices, and treating their customers like dirt, have been lining up for massive handouts from the tax dollars of those same customers.

With all those billions being sucked from the Treasury in the name of offense and defense and homeland protection, without a great deal of oversight, the opportunities for partisan congressional pork barreling boggle the mind — a highway here, a building there, a pet program elsewhere; who's to notice?

The president's in-like-Flynn relationship with Congress on the fighting terrorism front may be less solid with other issues, with more of the mutual wariness and gamesmanship that has long characterized the dealings between the two branches of government. Congress, which a wag described as “the greatest concentration of egos in one place,” operates on quid pro quo and as the shock of Sept. 11 subsides and everyone returns to nitty-gritty business, the president could encounter increasing resistance from lawmakers as he presents more of his domestic wish list.

That resistance may well be manifested in his goal of winning fast track trade authority — ooops, trade promotion authority, as it has been rechristened by the Bush administration — which gives the executive branch the power to negotiate U.S. trade agreements that Congress can only approve or disapprove, not amend.

Congress has refused the authority since 1994, when Republicans disagreed with Democrats that trade pacts should include stipulations about environmental protection, worker protection, etc., and because they were in the majority they were able to thwart President Clinton's request for fast track powers. Supporters say that without the authority, other countries will be reluctant to negotiate trade agreements with the United States because Congress can come behind and change them.

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee, by a two-to-one margin (26-13), voted to give the authority to President Bush. Only two of the committee's Democrats voted for it, far from resounding cooperation (one of the Democrat committee members said it was the most partisan vote he'd seen in more than a quarter-century). At this writing, there was a possibility that the full House would consider the matter this week — but with everything else on its plate, and adjournment not that far away, it wasn't by any means assured.

Republican leaders said they were optimistic they could get enough support from the Democrats to pass the measure, and the Senate is waiting to see what transpires in the House before going ahead with its own bill. Even if Congress is able to push through fast track in the brief time remaining, the president still may not be in the catbird seat on trade agreements if he lacks broad-based support from Democrats, who could balk if those agreements don't address their environmental and worker concerns.

All the while, U.S. trade continues to languish, with additional security measures at ports further adding to the cost of doing business for exporters/importers (estimates run as high as $15 billion to $20 billion more per year — not exactly chump change).

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