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Bush Signs Trade Act, Restoring Negotiating Power to White House

By Mike Allen and Paul Blustein

With a promise that more jobs and economic growth will result, President Bush celebrated a major legislative victory Tuesday by signing a trade bill restoring White House negotiating authority that Congress has withheld for eight years.

The East Room ceremony was a final bit of business before Bush headed off to his ranch here for a working vacation through Labor Day. Before leaving, he underwent his annual physical and one of his doctors later described Bush, 56, as being in “unbelievable shape.” His resting heart rate of 44 beats per minute puts him in the fittest 1 percent of his age group and in the range of elite marathon runners.

Passage of the trade deal is one of the three biggest legislative accomplishments of Bush’s presidency, along with last year’s tax cut and the education package he signed in January. Trade promotion authority, formerly known as fast-track authority, allows the White House to negotiate deals that cannot be changed by Congress, but only voted up or down. The authority, enjoyed by Bush’s five predecessors, lapsed in 1994 and President Bill Clinton failed in his effort to win renewal.

“With each passing day, America has lost trading opportunities, and the jobs and earnings that go with them,” Bush said as he signed the Trade Act of 2002. “Starting now, America is back at the bargaining table in full force.”

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said in an interview that calls and correspondence have poured into his office from a host of trade ministers and other top policymakers around the world since Congress sent the bill to Bush’s desk on July 27. “Around the world, this is seen as a real shot in the arm” for trade negotiations, he said.

Some of the contacts involve expressions of interest to initiate or deepen negotiations for free trade agreements with the United States of the sort Washington already has with Mexico, Canada, Israel and Jordan, Zoellick said. The administration is already well advanced in talks with Chile and Singapore. Zoellick said one of the next big projects will be pursuing a Bush initiative for bringing Central America into a free-trade deal. “The South Africans are very excited, too, because we’re looking at the prospect of a free trade agreement with them,” Zoellick said.

The eagerness those countries have for trade deals with Washington is something Zoellick is counting on as he pursues a strategy -- which he is now free to implement -- of conducting simultaneous negotiations for bilateral, regional and global accords. The idea is that by striking deals with individual countries, other more reluctant trading partners will feel obliged to enter into arrangements with the United States, too, so that their neighbors don’t gain advantageous access to the giant U.S. market.

Before signing the trade bill, Bush flew to Bethesda Naval Hospital for his annual physical and military doctors released a five-page summary describing him as being in “superior” shape. The report said Bush smokes an occasional cigar, consumes no alcohol, drinks diet soda and coffee, and takes vitamins and an aspirin daily but does not routinely use prescription medications. He is 72 inches tall, weighs 189 pounds and has 14.5 percent body fat.