Not So Fast on Fast Track

Both Sides Gear Up, Dig In for Extended Fight on Trade Policy

Posted February 23, 2007 at 6:34pm

President Bush’s fast-track trade negotiating authority expires June 30, but a new business coalition pushing for its renewal has crafted a long-term plan, indicating that pro-trade lobbyists expect a much longer slog than they would like to admit.

The Trade for America Coalition, according to sources familiar with the effort, has planned for a new set of co-chairmen to take over six months into the campaign, which would take it beyond the deadline for fast-track renewal. A lobbyist whose clients are involved in the coalition said that even though Members and Bush administration officials continue to negotiate to renew it before the authority lapses, this likely will be no quick lobbying battle. And no matter what happens this year, pro-trade lobbyists are energizing a next generation of advocates as they anticipate many fights to come.

Fast track, also known as trade promotion authority, allows the administration to negotiate trade agreements with other countries. Congress can then approve or reject the agreements, without adding any amendments.

“I think everybody thinks TPA is a long-term prospect,” said the lobbyist. “I don’t think it’s likely to happen in the short-term. It is likely to be a multi-year process.”

Opponents of trade promotion authority — emboldened by the Democratic-controlled Congress — have geared up their own effort, working closely with the office of Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine). Michaud’s staff is meeting regularly with representatives from the AFL-CIO and other labor unions, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen and the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

Peter Chandler, Michaud’s chief of staff, said his boss, along with Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), is working with the groups to come up with a wholesale alternative to fast track and plans to unveil a package in the coming weeks. “A simple labor fix isn’t enough,” Chandler said. “It would look drastically different. We’re going to come up with some sort of model that will be far better.” That model will include international labor organization standards, and is expected to draw widespread opposition from business groups.

Yvette Pena Lopes, a legislative representative for the Teamsters, attends the Michaud meetings every other week in the Cannon House Office Building, as do Brett Gibson, who handles trade policy for the AFL-CIO, and Alan Tonelson, a research fellow with the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

On the other side of the aisle, the office of House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) has run coalition efforts in recent years to pass trade pacts such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. But for now, Blunt spokesman Amos Snead said, “there is no formal coalition, because there is no package yet. The whip’s office is actively involved in encouraging people to support TPA, and if the right package materializes, then we’d actively reach out internally and externally. That’s when you might see a coalition form.”

Trade lobbyists on both sides of the debate acknowledged the heightened possibility of Republican defections on a TPA vote in the House — either because the Bush administration accepts too many labor and environmental provisions, or because of pressure from constituents who fear that more trade deals mean fewer jobs in the United States.

While still pushing for renewal by this June, the Trade for America Coalition, whose members include usual suspects such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, has three co-chairmen, including up-and-comers in the trade policy fights.

Bill Lane, a longtime free-trade advocate with Caterpillar, said, “We’re very aware that as part of promoting trade liberalization, we have to be serious about succession planning, and as part of that we are exceedingly focused on making sure there are leadership opportunities for the next wave of leaders. Business has been rightfully criticized for mounting ‘just-in-time’ lobby efforts. We now need a sustained effort to promote trade, and to do that we need to help the next wave of trade leaders to succeed.”

Lane said that Leslie Griffin, one of the co-chairmen who is vice president for international government affairs at the New York Life Insurance Company, is part of the next generation of free-trade leaders.

“Ideally there should be no lapse,” Griffin said of TPA. “But we’ll be part of the dialogue as long as we need to be. There is an understanding that we have a positive story to tell on trade. We also recognize that we need to have an honest appraisal of the trade agenda. We’ve got to expand the circle of winners.”

Over last week’s recess, coalition members, including Nicole Venable, a Democratic trade lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, met with the staffers for Members including Democratic Reps. Artur Davis (Ala.), Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), Baron Hill (Ind.) and Michael Arcuri (N.Y.).

“It would be easy if the business community just took the TPA papers from 2001” and recycled that effort, Venable said. “But we recognize we need to speak fresh and find things that are more responsive to Members’ concerns.”

Yet, three Democratic lobbyists who are pushing for fast-track renewal said the coalition got off to a bad start with Congressional Democrats when it kicked off earlier this month.

“I’d say that fell pretty flat,” said a former House aide who is now a lobbyist. “It was viewed as business as usual, at a time when we don’t need business as usual. It was probably not the best way to kick off trade in the new Congress.”

Added another lobbyist who came from the Senate: “It was noticed that there were no Democrats.”

While a full renewal of trade promotion authority remains difficult, several lobbyists said they support the idea of extending it temporarily, say for six months, or extending it just long enough to finish a deal with South Korea, which has not yet been signed.

Not everyone is gloomy about the prospects. A House Democratic Ways and Means aide said, “I think everybody is hopeful that we can find a common ground.”

And Trade for America’s Griffin agreed that she sees “genuine commitment” from Members.

One industry sector that could help the effort is high tech, which is viewed as having strong ties with many Democrats.

Ralph Hellmann, chief lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council, said his sector is willing to see some compromises when it comes to labor and environmental standards in trade deals.

“We are trying to build bridges between sides that may not agree — Republicans who want TPA extended as is to Democrats who want expansion of labor and environmental standards,” he said. His colleague, Democrat Josh Ackil, added that it’s important for the tech industry to “continue to tell Democratic leaders in the House and Senate that trade is important to us, while at the same time telling the White House they need to make sure that they work with Congress and are accommodating to their needs in order to get things across the finish line.”

The techies’ message of moderation has put members of the Michaud group on defense. “No doubt a certain luster attaches to the high tech firms,” said Tonelson of the USBIC. “But they too are actively outsourcing and of course when they look at their U.S. workers, they’re thinking ‘Gee, why do we pay these folks so much?’”