The U.S. Senate in a victory for President Bush passed legislation that would allow the White House to negotiate new trade deals for the first time in eight years. The vote was 66 to 30.
The bill would renew the President's authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could approve or reject, but not amend.
The White House has not had trade promotion authority or 'fast track' - since 1994, mainly because of Democratic lawmakers' concerns that free trade could erode labor and environmental standards.
Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts' Democrat: "I believe this bill is protectionism of the worst kind. It protects the rights of corporations at the expense of workers and the environment. It is not free trade when we must compete with foreign companies and countries that abuse their workers and ignore their obligations to the environment with impunity," Senator Kennedy said.
Critics also say fast track gives too much Congressional Authority to the Executive branch of government.
Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota says the measure violates the U.S. Constitution. "Article One Section Eight says the Congress should have power to regulate commerce in foreign nations. It does not say the President, it does not say the U.S. Trade Ambassador, it does not say some unnamed trade negotiators. It says the Congress shall have the power, the word is power, Congress shall have the power to regulate trade with foreign nations," Senator Dorgan said.
But supporters, mostly Republicans, say without trade promotion authority other countries would refuse to negotiate seriously with the United States because Congress could change the agreement.
Supporters, including Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott, say the legislation will help create jobs and enhance U.S. foreign policy. "We need to have free markets and free trade if we are going to have prosperity here at home and the opportunity for freedom around the world," Mr. Lott said.
The bill must now be reconciled with a version passed in the House last December before it is sent to President Bush.
But the White House has signaled Mr. Bush would veto the measure unless a protectionist amendment in the Senate bill is dropped during negotiations with the House.
The so-called 'Dayton-Craig' amendment would allow lawmakers to strike any part of a trade deal that changes U.S. anti-dumping laws or other protections against subsidized imports.
Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa says he is confident the provision would be dropped. But House Democrats began a campaign Thursday to keep the provision intact.
The Senate bill also renews and expands trade benefits to help the Andean nations of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru to create economic alternatives to cocaine production and drug trafficking.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona: "Governments of the region burdened by the spillover effects of the Colombian conflict are the most eloquent advocates for the tangible benefits provided by the Andean trade agreement. The group of nations that benefit from the act are critical to the hemispheric stability, prosperity and democracy that America has worked to foster in the region," Senator McCain said.
The bill also includes a major expansion of aid to workers who lose their jobs as a result of imports or overseas factory relocations. Funding would triple to about $1.2 billion each year.