Congress fast-track vote postponed

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The US House of Representatives yesterday postponed a crucial vote at the request of the White House, as President Bill Clinton and other members of the administration prolonged their frantic lobbying effort among sceptical Democrats. The vote on whether to approve what is known as the President's fast-track authority - the power to negotiate international trade agreements that would not be subject to Congressional amendment - was considered too close to call.

The postponement was announced less than an hour after Mr Clinton had made his second televised appeal in 24 hours for fast-track to be approved. Flanked by Vice-President Al Gore and the Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, Mr Clinton said that America's economy was now "the strongest it's been in a generation" and warned: "It would be folly to turn back now." He said the choice before Congress was clear: "The question is not whether we have a system of world trade, but whether we have one that works for us."

The vote is seen as a test both of Mr Clinton's authority and of US openness to the outside world. American presidents, from Gerald Ford onwards, enjoyed fast-track authority, but a Republican Congress withdrew it from President Clinton three years ago. Mr Clinton has made two unsuccessful attempts to have it restored and this year is seen as the last opportunity until after the next presidential election. Mr Clinton wants fast-track specifically to speed up free trade agreements with Latin American countries.