A House-Senate conference went down to the wire yesterday before reaching agreement on a wide-ranging trade bill without highly protectionist provisions that had drawn threats of a White House veto.
Bone-weary members of the House and Senate approved the conference report without a formal meeting after negotiating through the afternoon via messages and phone calls. The congressmen and senators were reported to be so "tense and touchy" after a week of late-night meetings that they had trouble dealing with each other face to face without taking offense over honest differences.
Afterwards, however, they appeared jubilant.
"It's a good bill," said Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee's trade panel. "Passing a trade bill without having it cause major problems is hard. But this is good."
U.S. Trade Representative William E. Brock also praised the bill and said, "I would be astonished" if there was any White House conversation about a veto, which had been threatened earlier this week by Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige.
With the merchandise trade deficit expected to soar to a record $130 billion this year, it appeared unlikely Congress could pass a trade bill that didn't contain specific points aimed at helping U.S. industries fight foreign competition.
While no written language detailing the bill's contents was available last night, Hill staff members and Brock insisted that the most protectionst parts of the House and Senate bills had either been deleted or watered down so much they were meaningless. These included sections that had drawn threats of trade retaliation from America's trading partners.
Included in the bill were the Reagan administration's top three priority items: an extension for 8 1/2 years of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) that gives duty-free entry to goods from developing countries; authority for free trade between Israel and the United States, which President Reagan had promised then-prime minister of Israel Yitshak Shamir last November; and a provision that strengthens U.S. power to retaliate when other countries refuse to remove their barriers to American products.
Canada can also get the free trade it wants in certain products after the president consults with and receives the approval of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.
Wrapped into the bill was a House-passed Democratic alternative to President Reagan's steel program that has a requirement that steel companies reinvest and modernize in order to get import relief. The bill also contains a "sense of Congress" resolution that imports under the programs should fall between 17 percent of the U.S. market -- Democratic candidate Walter F. Mondale's goal -- and 20 1/2 percent -- White House estimates for the president's program including imports of semi-finished slabs.
A controversial section of the bill aimed at helping California winemakers and grape growers fight imports also won passage, but only after restrictions were added. The most important put a two-year limit on right of grape growers to bring unfair trade cases against wine importers. The conference report, moreover, will contain language that only growers of grapes for wine could bring the complaint.
The conference passed a provision aimed at an International Trade Commission decision that ruled footwear manufacturers were not hurt by imports because the industry was profitable. The bill said the ITC should not rely on a single factor such as profits in finding injury.
Eliminated from the bill were two complex and highly controversial provisions that were described Thursday night as ensuring a veto. These include a "downstream dumping" provision that would have allowed American companies to bring unfair trade cases on products made from subsidized raw materials, and a section that would have broadened the definition of unfair trade practices to include items made with natural resources such as oil that are sold at a lower rate domestically than they are on the international market.