Losing track

UP TO 30 ACTIVISTS crowded into and briefly occupied Sen. Maria Cantwell’s Seattle office last week to protest her votes on a controversial trade issue known as fast-track authority. A measure authorizing fast track passed the U.S. Senate comfortably last week, with a number of Democrats—including both of Washington’s senators, Cantwell and Patty Murray—voting in favor.

Fast track—giving the president permanent power to negotiate and implement free-trade agreements with minimal review by Congress—has been eagerly sought by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. A fast-track bill narrowly failed in 1997 through a massive mobilizing effort by labor, environmental, and other anti-free-trade groups. Such groups have claimed that the emerging bad news from years of treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement requires that Congress should at least be able to fully review such deals—and, they hope, modify or kill them.

The political climate has changed, however.

“Before Sept. 11, Democrats would have been willing—and were willing—to drag their heels a bit more,” says Jeremy Simer, one of the leaders of Thursday’s protest. “Both of our senators really sold us down the river by voting for fast track, but Cantwell especially.”

Simer was referring to Cantwell’s opposition earlier in the week to the so-called Kerry Amendment, which would have prohibited provisions in fast-tracked agreements that give corporations the right to challenge environmental, public health, and labor laws that hurt profits.

Cantwell, unlike Murray, had in recent months consistently rebuffed requests to meet with local labor, environmental, church, and community groups opposed to fast track. Protesters entered her Federal Building office Thursday vowing not to leave until such a meeting was agreed to; within an hour, according to Simer, it was.

Such a meeting isn’t moot. With Senate passage, fast track now goes to a conference committee to iron out differences with the House measure. The compromise measure then returns for final votes in both chambers. That final vote is expected to be close.

Geov Parrish