Free Trade Comes to the White House, Again

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RON EDMONDS/AP

President Bush is fighting vigorously for a free-trade zone

Wednesday, the President will meet with high-tech leaders to talk about how he can win passage of permanent trade authority in Congress. Have you started nodding off yet? Or are you pounding your fist? Discussions of trade authority tend to either make the lids heavy (don’t talk about it while operating a belt sander) or enrage those who think opening foreign markets means losing American jobs.

Some of the business leaders attending Wednesday’s meeting fear that the White House is all too aware of the messy public mood on this issue and won’t push hard for trade legislation. Some in the administration share their concerns. But the problem for free-traders is not the White House commitment to the issue. Bush and his team are bullish. The problem is how the White House chooses to spend its political capital; fighting for permanent trade authority requires a lot of it.

Clinton failed when he tried to get "fast track" passed and though Bush has re-named his request for the same authority, he’s likely to have just as difficult a battle. He’ll need to twist at least 25 arms in the House to get passage — or so goes the conventional wisdom of the nose count at the moment. But that’s something Bush just doesn’t have the muscle to do just yet.

In fact, Bush is having to suck up to (rather than cajole) allies on the Hill. His team is still nervous about the post-Jeffords landscape. Moderate Republicans still require a lot of tending, and in recent days conservatives have been bucking and snorting. Vice President Cheney has been sent on two missions to smooth feathers and Bush makes a trip to the Hill this week to do the same.

The environment is not likely to get much better. The fall months will be consumed by a massive budget fight where the president and his party will be trying to protect their priorities and limit spending. The surplus is shrinking slightly, and with the Democrats in control of the Senate, there could be mean and close fights over the 13 appropriations bills that direct government check writers. Getting to the other side will require horse-trading and sweet-talking — and that will burn up political capital. Or, the president might have to wing out a veto or two, which will really put a dent in relations between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Any discussion of trade policy is, of course, tinged by the grim knowledge that the 2002 House elections get closer by the day. That fact that tends to weigh down members who might otherwise take a leap in favor of free trade. According to people like James Morgan, chairman of Applied Materials, who is scheduled to meet with the President Wednesday, the public needs to be told that trade is nearly surefire a way to buck up the economy.

Pro-free trade politicos in Washington tend to agree: With the tax cut now law and almost no chance of passing further rate reductions, the President doesn’t have many tools to goose the general well-being or even rhetorically help ease peoples’ fears about the downturn. Talking about trade in positive, pro-domestic terms lets him connect with their pockets to at least show that he’s not out of touch.