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White House Scrambles for Trade Pact Support : Economy: GOP leaders are hesitant on GATT vote. But Clinton aides still expect approval in lame-duck session.

November 17, 1994|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The White House scrambled Wednesday to retain bipartisan support for a world trade agreement in the face of concerns raised by newly emboldened Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

The Clinton Administration embarked on what one senior White House official described as "a very intense strategy" for securing approval after incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) expressed concern that the pact would limit U.S. autonomy and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is expected to be the next House Speaker, stated that its approval is far from certain.

Despite those concerns, the senior White House official, who asked that he not be named, and others in the Administration expressed confidence that the trade accord will prevail when the current Democratic-controlled Congress meets in a lame-duck special session later this month to vote on it. The pact would create a World Trade Organization as a successor to the 47-year-old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which now governs global commerce.

Republican opposition to the pact would mark a striking shift from the party's tradition as the champion of free trade and abandonment of a central element of the GOP approach to foreign policy and economics. Throughout much of the post-Depression era, Republicans have been bedrock supporters of reducing trade barriers. Their support was critical to approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement last year.

But GOP leaders, emboldened by their Nov. 8 electoral landslide, are preparing to take power in the new Congress, with many conservative members of the party playing leading roles.

The Administration's campaign for the trade plan, which the House is scheduled to bring to a vote on Nov. 29 and the Senate two days later, has been thrown into a maelstrom over the last 10 days as first Dole and then Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) expressed reservations.

To pressure those who are not yet committed to the trade pact, Vice President Al Gore said Wednesday that "Congress will decide whether the United States will continue to lead the world on global economic issues or not. . . . It is a critical vote for U.S. leadership in the world, and it is a critical vote for the health of the U.S. economy."

Dole, whose support is considered crucial for lining up the needed Republican votes, is concerned that the World Trade Organization would have the authority to overturn U.S. laws or regulations that it decides unfairly block other nation's exports to the United States.

Dole said Wednesday that the vote should be delayed if those concerns cannot be addressed. "If we can't fix it, we shouldn't do it this year."

Gingrich urged the Administration to accommodate Dole's concerns or face the prospect that the agreement could go down to defeat.

Recognizing the looming problem, President Clinton--in Indonesia for an economic meeting of Asian and Pacific nations--said that people "want to be assured that we're not giving up the ability to run our own affairs."

Administration officials said that a delay might kill the agreement because the other 120 nations involved might lose confidence in the United States' commitment to free trade. New demands by unhappy nations then could unravel compromises worked out during seven years of international negotiations.

In Washington, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor began what were expected to be several days of negotiations with Dole. White House officials said that Kantor hopes to work out an agreement under which Congress would vote in the future on whether the World Trade Organization is working to the United States' satisfaction.

By including such a provision, or one establishing a commission to review the trade authority's operation, Dole could tell critics that if the pact works against U.S. interests, Congress could force the government to withdraw.

Helms has held out the possibility that in his new position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he would be inclined to give the Administration's foreign policy initiatives a friendlier reception if a vote on the agreement is delayed until next year, when the new GOP-controlled Congress convenes--a prospect that Administration officials view with skepticism.

Because the agreement would cut tariffs--the taxes charged on imports--by roughly $740 billion around the world, it is being described by its supporters as the biggest tax cut in history.

The average 40% reduction in tariffs would prompt a surge in U.S. economic activity that would pump $65 billion to $200 billion into the U.S. economy by the middle of the next decade, proponents argue. But some industries would lose the protection that they depend on to fight competition from low-cost imports.

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