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House Postpones Trade Vote Until After Election


WASHINGTON — With Republicans throwing obstacle after obstacle in the path of a massive global trade agreement, House Democratic leaders decided Wednesday not to vote on the plan until they can reconvene in a rare lame-duck session three weeks after Election Day.

President Clinton had made the plan a centerpiece of his economic program as midterm elections approach. But two days of feverish work by the White House and its allies in Congress failed to gain enough support--particularly from Republicans--to overcome a split within Democratic ranks.

The decision to pull back on the measure, which would cut taxes on imports by an average of 40% around the world, represented a setback for the Administration but one that is not likely to be permanent.

There is a strong consensus among both Republicans and Democrats that once the measure is removed from the volatile political atmosphere leading up to the election on Nov. 8, Clinton should have little trouble gaining approval when the House returns for the trade vote on Nov. 29.

The delay sent an uneasy shiver through America's major trading partners, who are waiting to see whether the United States approves the measure before ratifying it themselves.

The Senate, where the eventual outcome is more precarious, already had decided to put off a vote until Dec. 1--an action that became a major element in the House decision.

The measure has drawn opposition from a diverse group that includes some major labor organizations and Ross Perot's United We Stand, America, Inc. With the Senate holding off on a decision, House members balked at being forced to take a stand just one month before the election.

By the Administration's estimate, the trade plan would cut tariffs, the taxes charged on imports, by $740 billion around the world during a 10-year period, and by $36 billion in the United States.

It would also force European nations to cut the subsidies they pay to farmers, bringing prices for European agricultural products more in line with U.S. prices in the world market, and extend the rules of trade to the growing services sector of the economy.

In a letter to Clinton, the bipartisan leadership of the House--Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)--said that "attempting to pass the legislation in the current atmosphere will weaken the strong bipartisan spirit we want to see for final passage."

They said the delay in the Senate "has quite frankly undermined our ability to guarantee strong bipartisan support for this effort in the House at this time."

Gephardt said the lame-duck session would be limited to consideration of the trade plan and "no other business would be addressed."

The House voted, 298 to 123, to approve the delay, overcoming objections that putting off the decision would give the final say on the matter to members leaving Congress, who no longer could be held accountable by their constituents.

Trade measures have become tricky to deal with in the political arena because they involve jobs as well as U.S. relations with other nations. They require bipartisan support and often present a case in which moderate Democrats must look for backers among the captains of American industry while fending off attacks from liberal colleagues and organized labor.

Such was the case a year ago with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the same appears to be occurring now--although at a lower volume--with the plan to redraw the rules of global measure, the 47-year-old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, into a new World Trade Organization.

"There is substantial support in both parties, but it does require both parties. One party can't do this alone," Foley said.

In the end, election pressures forced apart the coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats expected to support the agreement. Republicans who are almost certain to vote for the measure next month made it impossible for Clinton to gain a vote this week.

Gingrich in recent days had made it clear that while he supports the trade plan, he would try to block a vote before the election to deny Clinton an important legislative victory.

"The problems were on the Republican side," said Rep. Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.). He said the Republicans would have produced only about 15 votes in a key procedural vote originally scheduled for Wednesday night, which was not enough because of division among Democrats.

"A lot of people wondered why, with Nov. 8 a month away, we wanted to be creating a controversy for ourselves," Penny said.

"The Republicans are playing games," grumbled a senior White House aide who has worked aggressively for passage of the measure during the last several days.

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who supports the trade plan, said the uncertainty about the outcome was the key factor in deciding to postpone the vote.

"It allows us to comply with the Senate arrangements," he said. "Anyone making an attempt to say (the Republicans) are behind this is off base."

But he added: "The Administration's strategy has been to confuse the opposition by having no strategy at all."

The Senate was forced to delay action on the measure as a result of a procedural move by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who is normally a reliable Clinton ally but is also one of the angriest critics of the proposed agreement and efforts to open up world trade in general.


The last lame-duck Congress was convened in 1982 during Ronald Reagan's presidency. During the session, Congress passed a 5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax and approved the creation of more than 120,000 acres of new wilderness areas in five states. In the last 40 years, there have been seven such sessions.

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