The debate over U.S. trade policy could become more heated as the Senate takes up the Bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority Act.

In a vote that was even closer than the 215-214 margin would indicate, the administration and the Republican leadership barely eked out a House victory for the legislation in early December. (House leaders extended the time limit for voting to round up more ayes.)

Proponents argue the president needs the legislation's “Fast Track Authority” to be able to present trade agreements to Congress for an up-or-down vote without subjecting them to annoying and time-consuming review.

Critics say such review is needed to keep the administration from giving away the store in the interest of more trade for trade's sake.

Bush administration officials have warned that failure to pass this legislation and thus establish “freer trade” with other countries would mean that U.S. farmers would be left behind.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has said U.S. representatives must be given a free hand to negotiate new agreements on such topics as import tariffs where there is a wide disparity between countries (an average of 62 percent for them vs. 12 percent for us).

Obviously, U.S. farmers can benefit from lower tariffs and reduced trade barriers. But critics of the trade promotion authority bill say they don't trust U.S. trade representatives to always put the interests of U.S. farmers ahead of their desire to conclude new agreements.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said the main disagreement was between “those who believe trade policy must be updated to address a changed landscape and those who think there is no need to shape the terms of trade, because more trade is better no matter what.”

By “changed landscape,” Levin said he was referring to the dramatic increase in both the volume and value of trade in recent years. “It increasingly involves nations with very different economic structures from ours,” he said, “And trade negotiations now involve virtually every area of what used to be considered U.S. domestic law — from antitrust and food safety to telecommunications.”

That was what Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas was talking about when he issued a press release explaining his no vote on the trade promotion authority bill.

Although he helped manage the campaign to pass Fast Track Authority when Bill Clinton was president, Berry said he argued against the current legislation “because I am concerned about this administration's commitment to agriculture, and this legislation did nothing to relieve that concern.”

In the past, Berry has said farmers need a strong farm bill to increase U.S. bargaining power in future trade negotiations. But the administration seems to be backing away from such policies, he said.

The trade promotion authority bill may face an easier time in the Senate, which has been more liberal on trade issues, some say. On Dec. 12, the Senate Finance Committee passed its version of the bill, 18-3.

But farmers would prefer their senators do their utmost to make sure the final version of the bill does not enable trade negotiators to give away the farm in future agreements.

flaws@primediabusiness.com