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Keep Trade Fast Track

A BREAKTHROUGH last month in Geneva has revived talks on global trade that stalled in December. Now it is up to Congress to ensure that the negotiations can go forward to a satisfactory conclusion. The so-called Uruguay Round of trade talks under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was to have culminated in December, when the 107 member nations were to sign a pact to lower tariff barriers, liberalize trade in services like banking and insurance, create new protections for international patents and copyrights, and streamline the mechanism for resolving trade disputes.

The talks foundered, however, when European nations refused to accept reductions in agricultural barriers and subsidies demanded by the United States and other major food-exporting nations. Now, thanks to the patient efforts of Arthur Dunkel, GATT's director general, Ray MacSharry, the European Community's commissioner of agriculture, and others, the Europeans have agreed to negotiate ``specific binding commitments'' on each of three major agricultural trade issues.

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But reaching those commitments will take time, and Congress needs to grant that time. Under legislation passed in 1988, the president has authority to negotiate a trade agreement and submit it to Congress for ``fast track'' approval. That is, Congress must vote on any proffered trade pact without amendments, since US trade partners are understandably reluctant to enter into trade agreements that can be altered by special interests in Congress. The fast-track authority expires June 1, however.

Last week the Bush administration requested a two-year extension, as well as similar authority to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Mexico. The request can be rejected by either house of Congress within 90 days.

Congressional observers predict a fierce battle over the extension. Organized labor, which fears loss of American manufacturing jobs to Mexico and other low-wage competitors, has joined with the textile industry and other protected manufacturers to resist the extension.

It's essential that national and multinational interests prevail over parochial ones. The progressively freer trading order during the post-World War II era has contributed greatly to global prosperity - and to America's own prosperity. The United States, which has long taken the lead in free trade, must not now turn its back on that commitment.

Congress should extend the negotiating deadline, demonstrating that America's newly enhanced claims to world leadership rest on factors besides military prowess.

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