Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Another Latin American trade-promotion agreement passed the House Ways and Means Committee last week, proving that free trade is alive and kicking on Capitol Hill.

The bilateral pact between the United States and Peru won unanimous support from the panel, clearing the way for its passage by the House and signaling that future free-trade agreements will have bipartisan backing in this Democratic-run Congress.

The United States has free-trade agreements with 14 countries, and four more FTAs -- with Peru, Colombia, Panama and South Korea -- are waiting in the wings. These four new agreements alone "would expand market opportunities between the United States and countries having nearly 126 million consumers and a combined GDP of $1.1 trillion," according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The Ways and Means vote has suddenly breathed new life into the free-trade issue that has become a battleground in Democratic ranks and most likely in next year's presidential elections.

President Bill Clinton, who broke with his party's union-pandering trade posture, championed free trade and won approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement over bitter opposition from Democratic leaders in Congress.

But Hillary Clinton has made it clear that she is not gung-ho about the NAFTA deal her husband implemented and isn't crazy about negotiating future trade agreements that would anger union bosses who play an influential role in her campaign and her policies.

"I said for many years that NAFTA and the way it's been implemented has hurt a lot of American workers," she said at an AFL-CIO presidential candidates forum in Chicago, Ill., on Aug. 7.

"We just can't keep doing what we did (on trade) in the 20th century," she said in a March interview.

It was a clear flip-flop by the New York senator who had promoted her husband's trade agenda for years. But now she "is moving away from her husband's policies by opposing a trade deal with South Korea and raising questions about NAFTA," said Bloomberg financial news service.

Her change of heart on the pivotal trade issue raised suspicions that support from organized labor came at a price of switching positions, one that she is willing to pay to nail down the Democratic nomination with Big Labor's political clout and money.

But the fear-mongering demagoguery of the left's anti-trade forces has been steadily losing ground as evidence mounts that trade expansion has strengthened the U.S. economy by expanding U.S. markets abroad.

"U.S. exports are now at a historically high level and contribute strongly to the growth of America's gross domestic product," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said last week after the Peru FTA legislation cleared Ways and Means.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.