Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, is in a Mexican standoff with himself over whether to support President Bush's request for vast powers to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Mexico.
After he returned Tuesday from Mexico and meetings with its top government, opposition and labor leaders, Orton - a member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade - said he still is undecided."I do believe that the United States needs a trade agreement with Mexico. I think it should be a fair-trade agreement. I think a free-trade agreement may be a misnomer," he said.
But Bush wants "fast-track" negotiation authority to pursue a free-trade agreement, where Congress would agree to approve or reject any proposed agreement his administration works out without amending any part of it.
Orton said such authority is needed in talks among many countries - otherwise no agreement would ever come while each country's congress tried various amendments. But he said he is not sure it is needed for bilateral talks between the United States and Mexico.
"The president and the Mexican government says that without fast-track, there won't be an agreement, there won't be any more discussions. That's bunk. We need an agreement with Mexico. Mexico needs an agreement with us," Orton said.
He prefers that Congress find a way to pass a resolution outlining guidelines in come critical areas - such as protecting American jobs that could be lost to cheaper Mexican labor if unrestricted trade is allowed.
"I think we have to have a section that deals with environmental concerns. We have to have a section that deals with labor differences and phasing in so that we don't displace hundreds of thousands of workers overnight. We have to have a section on immigration," Orton said.
But Orton said, "But I think in the long term that a fair-trade agreement will benefit the United States by improving the economy of Mexico. As you improve its economy and allow them to earn higher wages, you open up a market for our products which will be able to flow into Mexico without restrictions."
He added, "I think the short-term benefits mostly go to Mexico . . . . But is that bad? We have a very strong interest in having a stable Mexico at our southern border, and a friendly Mexico at our southern border with open markets and democracy."
Orton's trip to Mexico - where he met with its secretaries of labor and commerce, opposition party leaders and union leaders - was his first fact-finding trip as a member of Congress.
"It was very beneficial. I gained more knowledge there in a day than I could have gained here in weeks, so it was extremely beneficial to meet with these people, to hear from them firsthand and to be able to ask questions and receive immediate responses."