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Trade promotion authority may be hard sell

The old vaudeville comedians often complained of unresponsive audiences, “It’s a tough house.” Those in the White House and on Capitol Hill these days should know the feeling.

A recent Newsweek poll showed President Bush’s public approval rating at an all-time low 28 percent. A Gallup poll that came out about the same time was a tad better, 33 percent.

Even so, he could nyah-nyah Congress, which fared even worse — an abysmal 29 percent overall approval rating, a 7-point drop from the high earlier this year when the Democrats took control. One is reminded of the survey a year or two ago in which people said they would trust a used car salesman more than a member of Congress.

Republicans don’t have a lock on unfavorable rankings, though. The bloom faded quickly from the Democratic rose; 64 percent of the poll respondents indicated they’re less than impressed with the way the nation’s business has been handled by the Dems.

All of this, and an increasingly impatient public that is more frequently applying the “do nothing” label from the last Congress to the current crew, only increases nervousness about the 2008 elections. Uneasy rest the heads of all the aspirants.

Which doesn’t make for a terribly hospitable arena for the president and his minions to try and curry support for renewal of trade promotion authority (TPA), previously known as “fast track authority.” TPA allows the president to negotiate international trade deals that Congress can only approve or reject, but not modify.

Mr. Bush was granted the current TPA by Congress in 2002, but only after a protracted wrangle — and then by just one vote. If it was that tough when his own party had control of both houses, it will be interesting to see if he can corral enough support to win a new TPA.

If he can’t swing it (the current authorization expires at the end of June), it could be a serious impediment to other trade deals over the next year and a half, because potential partners would be less than enthusiastic about entering into agreements that Congress could then tear apart.

TPA is also considered vital if the Doha round of international trade talks, which ground to a halt last year over disagreements on agricultural subsidies and tariffs, are to be kick-started. Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab met in Europe with ministers from other countries to try and breathe life into Doha.

Several members of Congress have indicated they might agree to an extension of TPA only if it would get Doha off dead center, postponing full approval until the next president takes office in 2009.

Schwab, calling for “bipartisan work” on TPA, says it “will insure the creation of new economic opportunities for American farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and service providers, with more choices for consumers, and will help guarantee that the benefits of trade extend to all people.”

Many in Congress have been unimpressed with the mostly minor trade agreements completed on Mr. Bush’s watch. Convincing them to approve a new TPA may be a hard sell.


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