The First Salvos Of A Trade War Between Bush And The Dems

Up till now, trade policy has not figured prominently in the increasingly heated duel between President Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. But thats changing fast. Spurred by a widening trade imbalance with Japan and growing voter anxiety over job security, the Democrats have opened a coordinated assault on the Bush Administrations management of international trade. The upshot: further delay in approval of a new U.S.-Mexico free-trade agreement, and pressure for a harsher U.S. trade stance toward Japan next year.

The tough new line was signaled on July 27, when House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said it would be unthinkable to approve any U.S.-Mexico pact without guaranteed controls on cross-border pollution, assurances that Mexican workers weren't being exploited, and provisions for retraining U.S. workers displaced by competition from Mexico. A year ago, Congress gave the White House blanket authority to negotiate a free-trade accord with Mexico and Canada, promising a simple up or down voteno amendments allowed.

SECOND THOUGHTS. But on the same day Gephardt fired his shot, a barnstorming Clinton got off one of his own: He'll support an agreement with Mexico only if "it provides adequate protection for workers, farmers, and the environment on both sides of the border." The Bush Administration has accelerated the pace of trade talks with the government of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in hopes of wrapping up a deal quickly. The aim: to trumpet the completion of a vote-getting U.S.-Mexico trade accord in California and Texas in time to make a difference in the Nov. 3 election.

But former Administration trade allies, including Senate trade subcommittee Chairman Max S. Baucus (D-Mont.), are cooling on the idea. Baucus says he has "serious qualms about the apparent rush," adding that the haste may be " American electoral politics." Democratic second thoughts on the free-trade talks will complicate the job of U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills. "It doesn't help to have negotiations in a political year or in a down economic climate," she concedes.

The White House is also under growing pressure on another front: late-starting Democratic attempts to enact new legislation to stiffen sanctions against unfair trade practices. To show that Democrats can outmuscle Bush on trade, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) has agreed to move a major trade bill onto the floor. Its provisionsaimed mainly at Japanwould force Hills to identify nations that discriminate against U.S. exports and take actions to help pry open their markets. "Maybe its time we put a little more weight into Ambassador Hillss crowbar," jibed Bentsen at a hearing on the bill.

Because it focuses on opening foreign markets rather than protecting domestic ones, Bentsen's bill is considerably more moderate than a punitive measure passed by the House. And because it is far more subtle than the hammer-and-tongs House approach, the Bentsen bill will be harder for Bush to veto. It will soon be taken up by the full Senate, where Democrats are eager to pillory Bush's trade record. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) recently said Bentsen's bill is a top Democratic priority.

A year ago, President Bushs handling of foreign affairs was the one thing GOP campaign strategists thought he wouldn't have to worry about in the reelection campaign. But with their orchestrated blitz, Bill Clinton and his allies on Capitol Hill hope to turn Bush's trade policies into one more stumbling block in his bid to remain in the White House.

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