WASHINGTON — Senate leaders signaled Tuesday that they plan to push ahead with action on a sweeping trade bill that has been hanging in limbo since last October's 508-point stock market slide.
"Without any hesitation, I can say we're going to put a bill on the President's desk," Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said. "We're going to try to do it in March."
Democratic leaders have set meetings later this week to plot strategy for fashioning a compromise between differing House and Senate versions of the 1,000-page trade legislation. Each contains provisions that sponsors say would bring pressure on the Japanese to lower trade barriers.
A House-Senate conference committee stopped work after Wall Street's Black Monday on Oct. 19, with critics saying the bill would only add to market volatility.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) also indicated Tuesday that he expects to produce a compromise that both houses will find acceptable.
"I'm hoping that we can do it by the end of March, but I'm holding a series of meetings this week to nail down the schedule," Bentsen said in remarks relayed by his office.
He said he would hold meetings with Byrd as well as Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and an aide to U.S. Trade Representative Clayton K. Yeutter.
Efforts to fashion a strategy are being complicated by the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to several congressional sources who asked not to be named. One entrant, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) is basing much of his campaign on a fiercely debated trade bill amendment.
The measure would require the President to force down Japanese surpluses in trade with the United States through the use of import curbs or other means unless he found that such an action would place the United States at a national security or economic disadvantage.
The Administration has opposed the Gephardt amendment as protectionism that would harm the economy and it is not contained in the Senate bill. But Gephardt's standing in polls in Iowa, where Democratic caucuses are held next week, shot up after his campaign started running television commercials based on the plan.
Gephardt is a member of the Ways and Means Committee. Congressional sources said many Democrats on the panel would shrink for the moment from embarrassing him in mid-campaign by tampering with his plan to win Senate support.