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Lobbyists Await Green Light on Trade

The next two weeks could be make-or-break for wrapping up free-trade agreements with Peru, Panama and other countries — but the critical negotiations appear to be taking place between the White House and the leadership of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Lobbyists who represent pro-trade clients say they anxiously are awaiting a deal between House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and the Bush administration that essentially would define what the majority Democrats are willing to accept in a trade agreement.

“The lobbying community on trade is stuck on pause, and if a deal is announced then we hit play,” said Scott Parven, a lobbyist with the all-Democratic firm Parven Pomper Schuyler. Perhaps as a sign of hope that a deal could be near, Parven’s firm just last week signed the government of Panama as a $15,000-a-month client. “If the administration and Rangel are able to come up with an agreement, it unlocks these existing agreements.”

The pending bilateral trade agreements must be completed and signed — including any renegotiated provisions to make the deals more palatable to Democrats — by the end of the month if the deals are to be considered under the current fast-track authority. Fast track, also known as trade promotion authority, allows the U.S. Trade Representative to negotiate trade deals, and Congress must approve or deny the deals without amendments. Fast track expires this summer.

“These agreements have to be submitted by the end of the month,” said one corporate lobbyist who focuses on trade issues. “In some ways, this really becomes the acid test for whether Rangel is going to be able to get things done or not. The ramifications are a lot greater than just these two or three trade agreements with key allies.”

A Democratic Ways and Means Committee spokesman said last week that the committee will not discuss private meetings. “We’re continuing to talk with the USTR,” the spokesman said, adding that “we’ve never heard of a deadline” for those talks.

Another Congressional aide, who would not be quoted by name, said, “It looks like we’re making progress.”

But opponents of the trade deals say that time is on their side.

“From our perspective, on the Members who believe we need a new direction on trade policy, we’d just as soon see that day come and go and start over,” said Peter Chandler, chief of staff to Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who opposes the trade agreements as they currently are written.

Proponents of the trade deals, he added, “have an awful lot of mountains yet to climb in the next two weeks.” Also this week, Ways and Means member Sander Levin (D-Mich.) plans to hold a hearing to probe an upcoming agreement with Korea that U.S. automakers oppose.

Unions and other groups that want the administration to fundamentally change the trade deals say they hope the clock ticks away. Yvette Pena Lopes, a lobbyist with the Teamsters union, said simply, “We’re fine without a deal at all.” For her opponents, who are pushing for the trade agreements, she said, “It is getting down to the wire. I would say things are pretty dim” for them.

David Martin, senior government affairs representative for the AFL-CIO-affiliated Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America, said the next week will be significant.

“If they announce some deal, we’ll look at it,” he said. “But quite frankly if they’re just addressing the labor provisions, then we already know we’re opposed to it, and they’ve been aware of this position for a long time.”

Alan Tonelson, senior research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, said that if there is a deal between Ways and Means members and the administration, he would not see that as “quote progress unquote.”

“We don’t care about symbolic breakthroughs and setting precedents,” he said.

Lobbyists and pro-trade Members say if Congressional Democrats and the Bush administration can agree on labor provisions, those new standards could serve as a template for a reauthorization of trade promotion authority, which likely will be another big lobbying fight.

Already that fight has extended well beyond the Beltway. The Progressive States Network last week beefed up its effort to urge state lawmakers to introduce anti-TPA renewal resolutions in statehouses across the country. Lawmakers in Maine, Ohio and Pennsylvania likely are working on drafting such resolutions, said the Progressive States’ executive director, Joel Barkin.

“We are looking at states where there are Members that we think we can move,” Barkin said. “Iowa is a possibility,” he said. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is a strong pro-free trade voice.

Back on Capitol Hill, advocates for a new style of trade agreements say that if the Peru and Panama deals end up stalled, that bodes well for their side on fast track.

“We’re looking ahead to what we’re going to do with TPA,” said Chandler, Michaud’s aide. If the administration does not send up an agreement by March 31, “that signals danger ahead” for trade promotion authority and the entire free-trade agenda, he said.

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