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By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, July 10 (Reuters) - A U.S. business group outlined a plan on Thursday to restore White House trade negotiating authority that was badly damaged in a fight between President George W. Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over a free trade pact with Colombia.
Regardless of who wins November’s presidential election, “the new Congress and the new administration will have to have a trade policy and will have to grapple with what to do about the process for negotiating trade agreements,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
The group, whose members include Boeing, Caterpillar, General Electric, Microsoft and other major U.S. employers, hopes its draft bill will help shape the outcome of an expected congressional trade debate in 2009.
The proposal, crafted with help from former Democratic and Republican aides on the Senate Finance Committee, must be introduced by a member of Congress to have a chance at becoming law. Reinsh said the NFTC would not seek a congressional sponsor to introduce it until next year.
A main provision would create a new congressional joint committee on trade with the power to block the White House from negotiating bilateral free trade deals like those Bush has aggressively pursued.
It would renew “fast track” trade negotiating authority through June 2013, with the possibility of one four-year extension. It would cover the current Doha round of world trade talks and three free trade pacts awaiting action in Congress.
Fast track dates to 1974. It allows the White House to negotiate trade deals that it can submit to Congress to approve or not, but not alter, within a limited time frame.
Bush’s fast track authority expired in 2007, and Democratic leaders in Congress have made no effort to renew it.
Three pending free trade agreements, with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, are covered by the legislation since they were signed before fast track expired.
However, when Bush submitted the Colombia agreement to Congress in April against the advice of Democratic leaders, Pelosi pushed through a rule change allowing her to indefinitely delay action on the trade pact.
Trade experts generally agree the fight in Congress crippled fast track by removing the certainty that lawmakers would vote on agreements negotiated by the White House.
By requiring the proposed trade committee to vote on White House requests to begin free trade talks, the NFTC proposal boosts lawmaker involvement at “the front part of the process to make it much harder for (deals) to fall apart at the end,” said Grant Aldonas, a former Bush administration official and Senate Finance Committee aide who helped write the bill.
The plan also reflects frustration with the Bush administration’s decision to mostly negotiate trade deals with much smaller economies, like the countries of Central America, and with the slow pace of the Doha round.
The draft bill encourages the next president to pursue free trade talks with major developed economies.
It calls for a “two-track structure” to trade negotiations within the World Trade Organization so countries that want to move faster to cut tariffs are not held back by countries that do not, Reinsch said.
Editing by Jason Szep