WASHINGTON -- The House on Saturday narrowly endorsed a major trade bill that President Bush says could be a key to American supremacy in the world economy and restored vibrancy for American businesses.
America has fallen behind as a trade leader, said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the chief sponsor of the bill. "It is time to pass legislation to get us back in the game."
The predawn 215-212 vote to give the president broad trade negotiating authority came some 11 hours after Bush traveled to Capitol Hill to personally appeal to Republicans to support him.
"He just basically said: 'I want it because the American people need it,"' Thomas, said of the president's message.
The bill, said Bush, is "very important for jobs and our workers, very important for our farmers and ranchers, and it's very important for our economy."
Waiting on Senate
The Senate could take up the bill next week, sending it to Bush for his signature and reviving trade promotion, or fast track, authority after an eight year lapse.
That authority allows the president to negotiate international trade agreements that Congress may approve or reject but cannot change. Every president since 1974 has enjoyed that authority, which Bush says is crucial if the United States is to lead in new World Trade Organization trade liberalization talks and efforts to establish a Western Hemisphere free trade zone.
Fast track has been a priority of the president since he took office, and, with the business community reeling from recent scandals and stock market setbacks, Bush has stepped up the pressure on Congress to give him the authority to open up new markets.
Passage, said National Association of Manufacturers vice president Frank Vargo, "should provide a solid boost to the nation's economy before the August recess."
Friday was the House's last day before its departure for a six-week break. The Senate has one more week before its summer recess begins.
Democrats overwhelmingly voted against the bill, arguing that it does not include adequate assurances that labor rights and the environment will be protected in future trade deals.
"To ensure improved living standards at home and abroad, trade policy needs to enhance human rights, reaffirm worker rights and promote environmental protection," said House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. "This legislation fails on all counts."
The Senate, in its original version of the bill passed last May, expanded benefits in an existing program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, that helps workers who lose their jobs because of trade.
Under the final compromise bill worked out with the House, laid-off workers could get a refundable 65 percent tax credit to pay for health insurance, and an extended pool of workers, including some secondary workers who supply goods to trade-hit companies, would become eligible for benefits.
Farmers and ranchers would qualify for benefits, and workers whose plants are moved to certain foreign countries could also receive the financial, retraining and health benefits.
But critics said the compromise bill weakened the Senate provisions, reducing the number of those eligible and providing a health care benefit that would be too expensive for laid-off workers living on unemployment payments.
The program is supposed to help those hit by global competition make the transition to new work, said Lori Wallach, director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a leading group fighting the measure. What is left in the bill, she said, "Doesn't come near to meeting that criteria."
The bill also extends duty-free treatment for many goods from the four Andean countries of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador for another four years.
Debate on the bill didn't start until after midnight, as GOP leaders scrambled to make sure they had the votes and answer the complaints of several committee chairmen that new spending programs in the bill should have gone through their committees.
In the end, 27 Republicans voted against it, while 25 Democrats supported the bill.
The key to passage was the party loyalty of several dozen Republicans from textile and citrus states whose districts had been hard hit by trade agreements that opened up their industries to foreign competition.
Bush, said Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican from North Carolina, "is a wonderful leader for this country. But there are other issues involved. I have to do what's best for my district." Hayes became the crucial yes vote last December when the House approved its original bill by a 215-214 vote. He received a promise from GOP leaders at that time that measures would be taken to protect textiles, and this time, with the president's victory assured, he voted no.