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Democrats in Congress Are Doubtful About Free-Trade Issues

President Bush wants the U.S. Congress to extend his so-called trade promotion authority, which expires July first. Also known as "fast track," it allows the president to submit trade deals to the House of Representatives and Senate for an up-or-down vote without amendments. But with Congress under opposition Democratic Party control, Mr. Bush may find it difficult to win approval for extending his trade authority, as well as a "yes" vote on future free-trade deals. VOA's Bill Rodgers reports.

Even in the usually pro-business House Ways and Means Committee, newly ascendant Democrats are expressing skepticism over U.S. trade policy.

Sandy Levin heads the trade subcommittee. "My own feeling is that we've had trade policies under this administration that have not been active enough, that have assumed that trade is an end in and of itself, that market forces will work themselves out -- that there really isn't a role for government."

Others on the committee are even more critical. Democrat Stephanie Tubbs Jones represents a district in Ohio. "See, the people in Ohio, other than the people who have companies that are involved in the export business... [T]he people on the street, they don't want to hear anything about trade, because they can't seem to understand how it's going to help them improve their lot."

Democrats gained control of the Congress following the November elections, partly on promises to change U.S. trade and economic policies. This was Sherrod Brown's strategy in Ohio. He won his Senate seat by appealing to workers worried about losing their jobs because of free trade deals.

Lawrence Mishel heads the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank partly funded by American labor unions. He says the free-trade era is over, now that the Democrats control Congress. "I think one of the biggest changes we are going to see is that I don't think free, unencumbered further globalization, more free trade treaties, etcetera, are going to be given a green light without a serious look at what we can do to make globalization work better for working people in the United States as well as working people in other countries."

Congressional Democrats want stronger environmental and labor standards included in future trade agreements. They say previous accords approved by Republican-controlled congresses did not adequately address these standards, allowing practices such as child labor and the suppression of labor unions to continue.

China is cited as an example by some lawmakers, including California Democrat Xavier Becerra, who compares trade to a boxing match. "Maybe China is playing by the rules in that boxing match when it has its industrial workers earning 60 to 65 cents an hour to produce steel or some other product, and then sends it over here to compete against steel made by Americans making 20, 22, 25 dollars an hour. Maybe that's a really high wage there. But if it is not, and that wage is constrained artificially by other things, [such as] compulsory labor, no institution to enforce their labor laws, then that's bad trade policy to allow those types of imports to come into this country."

But President Bush plans to continue to press his free trade agenda in the new Congress. Visiting a Caterpillar tractor factory in Illinois this week, Mr. Bush warned against protectionism. "The temptation is to say, 'Well, trade may not be worth it. Let's isolate ourselves. Let's protect ourselves.' I know it's a bad mistake for the country to lose our confidence and not compete."

Mr. Bush has called on Congress to renew his enhanced trade-negotiating authority. The administration says this is necessary if the United States hopes to negotiate lower world tariffs and reach bilateral agreements with countries like South Korea. But under the Democrats, Congress seems no longer willing to give Mr. Bush a blank check on trade.