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Mark Drajem / Bloomberg | March 13, 2007

House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel said he is having a tougher time negotiating with his fellow Democrats over trade agreements than he is with the Republican Bush administration.

Rangel is enmeshed in talks with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab over how to toughen labor protections in pending trade accords with Peru, Colombia and Panama. He said there has been progress in those talks and called on lobbyists to make the pitch to lawmakers that opening markets pays dividends.

``The problem I've had to deal with is the terribly negative view trade has,'' among Democrats, Rangel said in a speech in Washington. ``I was amazed at the number of members who won just by running against trade.''

Agreement on labor standards between Congress and the administration is crucial to the fate of these agreements as well as the renewal of President George W. Bush's ``fast-track'' trade negotiating authority, which expires at the end of June. That authority smoothes the negotiating process by allowing the administration to work out trade agreements that Congress must accept or reject without amendment.

After the Democrats took control of Congress, Rangel, from New York, demanded that Schwab strengthen provisions requiring U.S. trading partners to follow standards of the International Labor Organization forbidding child, forced and prison labor, outlawing discrimination and assuring the right to organize.

The two sides are trying to work out that deal over the next month, Rangel said.

``If we get an agreement on labor we will remove the excuse of the ILO'' used by opponents of the trade pacts, Rangel said. ``I don't think the ILO is anything more than an excuse -- on the left or the right.''

More Criticism

Even as Rangel tries to work out that long-standing complaint of Democrats, others criticisms are joining the queue.

The accords with Peru, Colombia and Panama should be rewritten so that those countries get a greater ability to make cheap, generic copies of patented medicines, Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and 11 other lawmakers wrote in a letter to Schwab yesterday.

A group of 25 freshman Democrats wary of the trade agreements under way met with Rangel March 9. Rangel told them to send him their proposed changes in writing.

A separate group of 27 Democrats wrote Rangel last week saying that the pending pact with Peru must be rewritten to prohibit Peruvian exports of mahogany, an endangered tree species.

Meeting Demanded

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and other freshman Democrats demanded a meeting with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana to discuss trade policy.

``Years of job killing trade agreements are taking their toll on workers and small business owners,'' Brown said in a statement. In addition to stronger labor protections, Brown said he wants trade pacts to address income inequality in the U.S. and abroad.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at mdrajem@bloomberg.net

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