WASHINGTON — Voting mostly on party lines, House Democrats Tuesday blocked a surprise Republican move to strip a controversial protectionist amendment from the omnibus trade bill, now bogged down in a conference committee. The vote was 239 to 175.
It was taken in response to a move by House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who challenged Democrats to join in a bipartisan move to instruct House conferees to abandon a proposal by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to require trade retaliation against countries like Japan and West Germany that carry large trade surpluses with the United States.
Michel's action was aimed at retaliating for partisan attacks on Administration tactics in the ongoing effort to negotiate a lower budget deficit. He and other Republicans tried to seize the chance to tag the Democrats with the economy-killing policy of protectionism at a time when world markets are in turmoil and the budget process is still hobbled in politics.
Most of the House Democratic leadership actually opposed Gephardt's mandatory retaliation measure when it narrowly passed the House on a 218-214 vote April 29. On Tuesday, however, the Democrats quickly found a procedural technique to support their colleague, who is carrying the banner of House Democrats as a presidential candidate.
They said that hurrying the conference committee would be unfair to Gephardt, who was on the campaign trail Tuesday. "We want to be fair to Mr. Gephardt before we defeat his amendment," said Rep. Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.), one of the original floor managers of the trade package and an opponent of Gephardt's proposal.
Gibbons added that he doubts the conference could complete its work before the end of the year.
Indeed, there is consensus that Gephardt's proposal will not survive the conference and never will come before President Reagan, who has vowed to veto any trade bill containing it. Only a cluster of Democrats from "rust belt" states of the upper Midwest expressed support for the measure.
More typical was the response by Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.), who declared: "We all realize the Gephardt amendment is dead. This is a debate on the process of the House." He added: "My concern is that we'll have a larger margin in favor of it than when the Gephardt amendment passed--at a time when everybody here knows it's dead in conference."
But Michel sought to capitalize on the political climate surrounding the crucial economic issue. "The market crash has put an economic noose around the neck of the House," he said, and "the Gephardt amendment erected the scaffold."
He added: "Whatever political goal the Gephardt amendment was originally proposed to gain is now a bizarre fantasy, a faded dream, possible to imagine only in a placid, predictable economic world of 'B.C.'--before the crash."
Rep. Hal Daub (R-Neb.) challenged Democrats to reject "the old Smoot-Hawley signals" and "prove you have a concern for the economy, prove it's not your strategy to weaken the economy in 1988."