The Republican leadership's last-minute arm-twisting of wavering House GOP members produced a dramatic one-vote victory Thursday for a bill to strengthen President Bush's hand in negotiating a new world trade agreement.
On a 215-214 vote, Bush pulled out a victory on an important economic measure that put his international clout and prestige on the line with the nation engaged in a difficult war on terrorism.
The bill, which would bar Congress from amending trade agreements negotiated by the president, now goes to the Senate, where Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said the issue would not be taken up until next year.
But the measure cleared the toughest political hurdle in the House, where it has been blocked in the past by members of both parties who complained trade deals have destroyed jobs in their districts.
From the GOP perspective, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) put the choice on the line: "This Congress will either support our president who is fighting a courageous war on terrorism and redefining American world leadership, or it will undercut the president at the worst possible time."
But such stirring words were not enough. With the outcome in doubt during an extended roll call that Republicans were losing by five votes, GOP leaders prevailed upon a handful of their party members inclined to vote against the bill to change their minds.
Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.), who cast a last-minute vote, said he was ready to oppose the bill if the vote had not been close. In the end, he said, appeals to patriotism worked.
"He's my president, and I helped get him elected," Ballenger said. "I didn't get any roads; I didn't get any bridges; I didn't get my shoes shined."
But there were reports that the White House and the GOP leadership did engage in some horse-trading to round up the necessary votes. Bush was deeply involved in lobbying the wavering Republicans, who also included Reps. Cliff Stearns of Florida and Dana Rohrabacher of California.
Ballenger and Stearns said Hastert cast the measure's deciding vote.
In a statement, Bush commended the House and urged the Senate to move quickly. "By promoting open trade, we expand export markets and create high-paying jobs for Americans, while providing opportunities for other nations as a result of free trade."
On the final vote, 194 Republicans and 21 Democrats voted for the bill, while 189 Democrats, 23 Republicans and two independents voted against it.
Democrats opposing the measure said it did nothing to guarantee that labor and environmental standards would be included in any trade agreement.
"Our country should do more than just create markets for our exports," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). "We should raise living standards for people in this country, strengthen the American manufacturing base, and enhance economic and national security for all our citizens."
Countries belonging to the World Trade Organization recently agreed to a new round of negotiations to produce a new trade agreement by 2005. It would cover a wide range of barriers, including agricultural subsidies, antitrust policies and protection of telecommunications and services industries.
The fate of an economic stimulus package was also closely tied to the vote on the trade promotion authority bill. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, pledged this week to offer more assistance for displaced workers in the package in an effort to garner support for the trade bill.
If the trade measure had gone down to defeat, these concessions might have been dropped, complicating the chances of a stimulus bill getting through Congress. Gephardt said the GOP was trying to buy votes by offering concessions that were inadequate, even though Republicans moved closer to the Democratic position on the stimulus bill.
After Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, fast-track authority for the president expired. President Bill Clinton tried to renew it on several occasions to negotiate new trade deals but failed.
Getting such a measure approved in the middle of a recession, when millions of workers have been laid off, has always been politically difficult. But large corporations and farming interests have been clamoring for its approval as a way to boost their exports.
Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) said previous trade bills have raised joblessness in his home state and this one would as well. He called it a "fast-track bill providing a fast track to the unemployment line."
But Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), who represents the high-tech areas of northern Virginia, said free trade dramatically boosts income by increasing exports, adding that the U.S. has enforceable labor and environmental standards.
"I think this is one of the most important votes we will have in this session," said Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who favored the bill. "It empowers the president when he needs it the most."