Senate debates trade authority

Friday, May 17, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Senate action on a bill to give the president broad trade negotiating authority stalled Thursday as senators balked at adding retired steelworkers to those eligible for benefits because of trade dislocations.

The dispute over steelworkers was the latest in two weeks of Senate debate that threatened to derail a compromise that would let the president negotiate international agreements while providing health care and other benefits to workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who helped come up with the compromise, said that if the steelworker amendment passes, "I'm off this bill."

Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the amendment's sponsor, retorted: "If retirees don't have health care coverage because their company shut down due to imports, they should not be left behind."

With a GOP-led filibuster on the amendment, no vote is likely until next week, and it would take 60 senators to move the measure to a final vote. The administration voiced opposition to the amendment, which White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said sent a "troubling signal that the Senate is seeking to undermine the possibility of passage of free trade."

Language to help retired steelworkers was included in the original Senate bill but at the insistence of Gramm and others was removed in the compromise.

The Rockefeller provision would give workers who retire because imports drive their companies into bankruptcy the same health care benefits the bill now gives to other trade-displaced people unemployed or training for new jobs.

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