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In a major change of policy, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush voiced readiness Thursday to remove the issues of workers’ rights and the environment from a new round of trade liberalization talks the World Trade Organization hopes to launch this year.

Differences over antidumping rules and the linkage of labor and environmental issues with trade liberalization were among major pitfalls that tripped up the WTO’s previous efforts to launch a new trade round in 1999.

Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick indicated the Bush administration does not plan to take up labor and environmental issues together at global trade negotiations.

“Please consider this reality: It really will not help working men and women at home and abroad — or environmental causes — to paralyze trade negotiations with cumbersome limits or sanctions or pressures,” Zoellick said.

Zoellick and U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans both appeared at Thursday’s Senate hearing to testify on the importance of congressional approval of “fast track” trade promotion authority.

“Fast track” allows the U.S. president to negotiate trade deals that Congress can reject or approve in one package.

Secretary Evans expressed objection to Japan’s call for a review of WTO antidumping rules and defended U.S. trade laws that allow Washington to take unilateral measures against what it calls “unfair trade practices.”

“In discussing a potential new round with our trading partners, we have made abundantly clear we oppose any weakening of WTO trade remedy rules,” Evans said.

Japan claims the U.S. has abused antidumping remedies allowed under WTO rules and Tokyo is seeking to review the rules at the next round of global trade talks.

Evans also said the U.S. would maintain trade laws that allow Washington to take unilateral retaliatory measures, arguing that foreign government intervention in the marketplace through subsidies and other market-distorting practices has plagued vital U.S. industries.

“As long as governments continue to intervene in the marketplace and distort trade, it is critical that we maintain strong and effective laws to address the resulting unfair trade practices.”

As trade negotiating objectives, Evans said the U.S. will seek to cut tariffs, bring a special focus on agriculture, slash barriers to exports of U.S. services and keep electronic commerce free from trade barriers, in addition to preserving strong trade measures against unfair trade practices.

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