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Labor sees Bush trade talks with Congress failing

Reuters | 23 February 2007

Labor sees Bush trade talks with Congress failing

By Doug Palmer

The Bush administration is unlikely to reach a deal with the Democratic-led Congress to salvage free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and Peru, critics of White House trade policy said on Friday.

The administration faces "a very high bar" to win the support of a majority of Democrats for the three pacts, said Thea Lee, policy director at the AFL-CIO labor federation.

"If they wanted to do it, (the trade agreements) would have to look very different and they’d have to be in the room with Colombia and Peru and Panama right now," Lee said.

"Anything real is going to require renegotiation. They’re not renegotiating. Therefore, they’re talking about minutiae," Lee said after a briefing for congressional aides on why lawmakers should oppose White House efforts to get renewed "fast track" authority to negotiate trade deals.

The AFL-CIO is one of the fiercest opponents of the Bush administration’s trade policies, but it has been unsuccessful in stopping any of the free trade agreements the White House has crafted since narrowly winning fast track in 2002.

That legislation, also known as trade promotion authority, allows the White House to negotiate trade agreements that Congress must approve or reject without making changes. It expires July 1 and Bush has urged Congress to renew it so can continue pursuing trade deal.

Democrats, who won control of Congress in November elections, are demanding tougher labor and environmental provisions in trade pacts, beginning with the Peru, Colombia and Panama agreements. That has led to talks between U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee to try to come up with a new approach to those issues in trade pacts.

However, Schwab still wants to address the issues through a "weak, crappy" side agreement rather than renegotiating any of the trade deals, Lee said. In addition, there’s no sign the administration is addressing any of the concerns the AFL-CIO has about other sections of the pacts, she said.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said she also doubted Schwab and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (news, bio, voting record), a New York Democrat, could reach a deal on labor and environment that a majority of House Democrats could support.

That’s the only politically viable option since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record), a California Democrat, is unlikely to back a deal that badly splits her caucus, Wallach said.

David Waskow, international programs director at Friends of the Earth, also said he did not expect the Bush administration to bridge differences with Democrats on how to raise environmental standards through trade agreements.

Lee, Wallach and Waskow all argued at the briefing against even a temporary extension of trade promotion authority to finish the Doha round of world trade talks.

What those talks need is a "spectacular failure" so they can start over from scratch, Lee said.

 source: Reuters