WASHINGTON — C. William Verity, nominated to succeed the late Malcolm Baldrige as commerce secretary, on Thursday defended his advocacy of closer economic ties with the Soviet Union and labeled as "counterproductive" a law that links trade to human rights progress.
"We have to find a way to increase (Jewish) emigration out of the Soviet Union that isn't tied to trade," the former Ohio steel executive told the Senate Commerce Committee. "There are better ways to do it."
Verity said direct negotiations between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev might be a more effective way to increase the number of Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union.
Verity, 70, dismissed contentions by conservative critics that he was pro-Soviet, arguing that he always has favored restrictions on selling high-technology items with military applications to the Soviets.
But, he added: "I think trading with the Soviet Union is a good thing."
Verity, former chairman of Armco Inc., one of the nation's largest steel companies, is a past co-chairman of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Trade and Economic Council, an organization of business executives established to foster increased trade between the two nations.
Although Verity was questioned closely on his views on expanded trade with the Soviets, his approval by the committee and confirmation by the full Senate is widely expected.
Nearly all the senators who questioned him at the Thursday hearing said they would vote for him to succeed Baldrige, who was killed in a horse-riding accident July 25.
Verity vowed that, if confirmed, he would enforce a 1974 law, named for the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington and former Rep. Charles Vanik of Ohio, the sponsors, that denies the Soviet Union most favored nation trade benefits so long as it does not permit free emigration of Jews.
However, Verity testified: "I still have reservations about its effectiveness."
"I would have to say that Jackson-Vanik, from a trade point of view in my opinion, has been counterproductive," he added.
Asked by Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) if he would recommend to President Reagan the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik measure, Verity said he would not.
"I know how important it is to the Jewish community and to many others that we keep human rights before the Soviets," he said.
However, Verity said Congress, after consulting with Jewish organizations, might want to consider easing the Jackson-Vanik restrictions if the Soviets allow increased emigration as a good-will gesture.
Some Groups Opposed
Asked by Sen. Robert W. Kasten (R-Wis.) what level of emigration he would consider satisfactory to justify easing the restrictions, Verity said, "a reasonable figure of somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 (a year) would be a good starting point."
Although Verity's nomination is not opposed by the organized Jewish community, it is opposed by some groups, including the Center for Soviet and East European Jewry.
As commerce secretary, Verity would have to enforce many of the export control laws on East-West trade that he opposed as a private businessman.
Under questioning, Verity said he still believes that restrictions on what can be shipped to the Soviet Union are costing U.S. businesses billions of dollars in lost sales.
Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, told the Senate committee that "If William Verity is confirmed, Gorbachev will have a seat at the Cabinet table." To that, Verity retorted: "The suggestion about Mr. Gorbachev being in the Cabinet, that doesn't require much of an answer."