Associated Press WriterNEW ORLEANS (AP) -- President Bush aired new fears Tuesday about unemployment, which last month hit a six-year high, and touted free trade as a cure. He accused the Democratic-controlled Senate of stalling trade and energy legislation.
"I'm worried about jobs and I believe if you trade more, there are more jobs available for hard-working Americans," Bush said at the Port of New Orleans, the final stop for many export-bound U.S. goods.
"This isn't a Republican issue, this isn't a Democratic issue," Bush said, his voice rising. "Trade is a jobs issue, and the United States Senate needs to hear the voices of the working people and get me a bill I can sign!"
Bush seeks authority to negotiate "fast-track" trade agreements, which Congress could reject but not amend. The Senate is to vote on the issue early this year.
Many Democrats and labor and conservation groups oppose fast-track because they fear it would threaten American jobs and make it easier for polluters to challenge environmental-protection laws.
But Bush said fast-track would allow the United States to send more goods abroad, and insisted the legislation was vital to economic recovery.
"Our economy is interconnected," Bush said. "What happens in Moline, Ill., and in Missouri affects the people who work here in New Orleans in the port."
Bush's appearance here closed out a two-day trek to Illinois, Missouri and Louisiana to highlight and the route down the Mississippi River that American agricultural products commonly take en route to international markets.
Bush said those who play politics with the issue seek to shut down trade because they lack confidence in American workers and products.
"I'm just the opposite," Bush said. "I know we got the best workers in the world, I know we can make the best products in the world and therefore we ought to have free and fair trade around the world."
The Senate's reluctance to pass fast-track and Bush's energy plan is hurting workers, Bush said.
"It's about time they focused on creating jobs in America and get me a trade bill and an energy bill for the good of the American people," Bush said.
The nation's unemployment rate hit a six-year high of 5.8 percent in December and many economists say the jobless rate will continue to climb to around 6.5 percent this summer.
Bush watched as cranes piled shipping containers onto a hulking freighter at the port, which moves an average of 11.4 million tons of goods annually.
Just steps from his stage lay bundles of steel made in Japan. Bush told reporters he had yet to decide on what actions he should take to support the domestic steel industry.
The U.S. International Trade Commission cleared the way for Bush to impose protective barriers to aid U.S. steelmakers in October when it ruled that the domestic industry had been seriously injured by steel imports.
Bush has renewed his focus on the economy at the start of this election year, even as he manages the war against terror and as his administration is defending its contacts with Enron Corp. before the huge energy company collapsed last month.
He got a bit of good news on Tuesday: The Commerce Department reported retail sales edged down by a smaller-than-expected 0.1 percent in December.
The president is offering no new government initiatives to pull the nation from recession, instead promoting his broad philosophy on how to kick-start the economy with such measures as lowering taxes and bolstering trade.