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US President Regains 'Fast Track' Trade Authority

In a key legislative victory for the White House, the U.S. Senate Thursday gave final approval to a bill restoring the President's authority to negotiate trade deals for the first time since 1994. President Bush is expected to swiftly sign the measure into law.

Just days after the House passed the legislation, the Senate followed suit on a 64 to 34 vote.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, helped craft the bill. "We can show the world that America will lead the way in building a new consensus on international trade," Mr. Baucus said.

President Bush immediately hailed the vote, saying trade promotion authority would help boost the flagging U.S. economy by opening markets to create jobs and provide new opportunities for farmers and workers.

Such authority known as 'fast track' is crucial to Mr. Bush's trade agenda, which includes bilateral trade deals with Chile and Singapore, and efforts to create a hemisphere-wide trade zone from Canada to Chile.

"Fast track authority" allows the President to negotiate trade deals that Congress could approve or reject but not amend. Supporters say without the measure, countries would not seriously negotiate with the United States, fearing Congress would change provisions in agreements.

Opponents including Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat believe Congress should have a greater say in trade deals. "The administration shall negotiate trade agreements in secret, and Congress will agree that when those trade agreements are brought back to the Senate, Congress will have in place a procedure that will prevent the Senate from ever changing one word of the agreement. In other words, Congress signed itself up to say 'Look, handcuff us'," Senator Dorgan said.

Previous efforts to renew the authority since it expired in 1994 failed over concerns about the impact of trade agreements on environmental and labor standards.

Senator Baucus said those concerns have been addressed by the bill's requirement that U.S. negotiators push for commitments from countries not to weaken their labor and environmental laws to gain advantage. The legislation also includes greater aid for American workers who lose their jobs because of trade.

In addition, the bill renews and expands trade preferences to Colombia and other Andean nations to help curb drug trafficking in the region. It also expands access to the U.S. market for textile goods from Africa and the Caribbean.