Senate kills worker benefit plans; trade legislation picking up

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Senate scuttled two proposals Tuesday to create new benefits for workers victimized by imports, including one killed on Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote, as momentum grew for passage of major trade legislation sought by the Bush administration.

After more than two weeks of debate, Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he hoped for a final vote today on the bill giving President Bush expanded authority to negotiate global trade deals.

The maneuvering came as House lawmakers from textile states said they had won support from the GOP leadership and the administration for a provision designed to protect jobs in an industry particularly hard hit by imports. Under the proposal, fabric would have to be dyed, printed and finished in the United States before being shipped overseas for cutting if it is to enjoy favorable trade treatment when it is reimported into the United States for sale as clothing.

Officials said the provision would be inserted into a catchall spending measure expected on the House floor later this week.

"It's exactly what I asked for," said Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who gained leverage on the issue by supporting the trade legislation when it cleared the House by a one-vote margin last year. Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., who also voted for the bill despite a heavy presence of textile jobs in his district, expressed satisfaction.

Blend of trade, benefits

The Senate legislation is a blend of trade provisions proposed by the White House and worker benefits sought by Democrats. It would give Bush authority to negotiate international trade deals, subject to only a yes-or-no vote by Congress -- with one exception. The exception, permitting a separate vote in cases in which American antidumping remedies were weakened, has drawn a veto threat from Bush's advisers and is generally expected to be dropped when House and Senate negotiators fashion their final compromise.

The worker assistance in the bill comes in the form of expanded benefits for those whose jobs are lost due to import competition. A new program of federal subsidies for health insurance is expected to cost as much as $12 billion over the next decade.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and other steel state senators sought to extend the health care benefits to steelworkers who retire when their plants close due to imports. They gained only 56 of the 60 votes they needed.

"No other industry has suffered, has been such a victim of the flood of imports as has the steel industry," Rockefeller said. Daschle urged the Senate, "Let's deal with the victims as well as the prizewinners here."

But Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., said such new spending programs were "ransom" for going along with expanded trade authority for Bush. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a leading GOP supporter of the bill, said passage of the steelworker provision would upset a "very balanced compromise."

The next threat to that balance came from an amendment by Sen. George Allen, R-Va., to provide federal home-mortgage assistance for workers laid off because of international trade.

Daschle and Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, D-Miss., both voted to kill Allen's proposal, a reflection of the bipartisan desire to finish the measure. So, too, did Grassley and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a leading Democratic advocate of the trade bill.

With the vote tied at 49-49, Cheney sent the proposal to its death. It was the third time he has voted in the Senate and his only tiebreaker since the Democrats gained the majority a year ago.

At its heart, the legislation is designed to restore trade negotiating power that presidents have had for much of the past quarter-century. The authority lapsed in 1994, and the Republican-controlled Congress refused to renew it as long as Bill Clinton occupied the White House.

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