The House re-jected a Republican-led attempt Friday to enhance the president's ability to negotiate trade treaties, as what once was a top priority of President Clinton before he became entangled in campaign-season politics.
The effort to give the president so-called fast-track negotiating powers was defeated by 243-180, killing it until at least next year. Its demise came as no surprise to lobbyists and vote counters from both sides, who for days had realized the proposal was hopelessly doomed.Republicans said they wanted one last crack during this Congress at helping to expand U.S. trade opportunities, especially as farm prices are plummeting at home and economies are stumbling abroad. With Election Day barely five weeks away, they didn't hesitate to point their fingers at fast track's Democratic foes.
"If this goes down and we end up in a steep, worldwide depression, some of us will have the comfort of knowing we cast the right vote," House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said just before the vote.
Clinton said the blame lay with Republicans for staging the vote in the heat of the election season.
"Now was clearly the wrong time to vote on it," the president said in a written statement. He added, "At a time when we need to forge a new consensus on trade, Congress has chosen partisanship over progress."
Clinton's earlier embrace of the expanded authority had helped mark him as a centrist who differed from more traditional, protectionist-minded Democrats. But the White House objected when Republicans scheduled the vote so close to the November congressional elections, arguing that the GOP was forcing some Democrats in closely contested districts to risk angering hometown union members, farmers, environmentalists and business interests.
So this time, the administration withheld its support, turning the issue into a testy partisan fracas.