WASHINGTON (AP) -- House leaders hope their promises to help displaced workers and endangered industries will persuade lawmakers to give President Bush sweeping powers to negotiate new trade agreements.
Trade promotion authority, denied to the president since 1994, would allow Bush to negotiate trade pacts that Congress could approve or reject but could not amend. He has made it his top trade priority and has lobbied hard for its passage.
The House began Thursday by taking up two bills that supporters of the trade measure hope will give them the edge on a vote still too close to call. One expands assistance for workers who lose jobs because of changing trade relations. The other increases money for the U.S. Customs Service, partly to counter the illegal imports of textiles through third countries.
Democrats, who with organized labor are strongly against the trade bill, said they wouldn't be swayed. "The Republican leadership is now trying to buy votes," said Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. "It's an affront to the unemployed workers of this country."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the bill's author, on Wednesday announced a package of more than $20 billion to help people who have lost their jobs because of the recession or the Sept. 11 attacks, a major issue for Democrats.
The House's top three Republicans, Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, sent Thomas a letter Wednesday endorsing the spending of "not less than $20 billion" to help displaced workers and saying "this bold offer on your part will encourage a number of our Democratic colleagues to support trade promotion authority."
Money for unemployed workers is being considered as part of an economic stimulus package that House and Senate leaders are struggling to put together.
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