Considered dead last week, legislation giving the president power to control strategic exports to Soviet bloc nations may spring to life today.
A compromise that could bring passage of the bill by a conference committee calls for the Senate to drop its insistence on increasing the Pentagon's role in export licensing in return for the House giving up its ban on new bank loans to the government of South Africa, Hill sources said yesterday.
To sweeten the pot for House members who wanted the Export Administration Act to include strong sanctions against South Africa for its policy of racial separation, provisions are likely to be stiffened relating to fair employment practices by American companies doing business there. "I'm hopeful that we'll have a bill that the president can sign," said Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.), head of the House conferees.
Senate sources were more restrained, fearing the compromise could come apart today because so many of the Senate and House members involved were away from Washington during the long Columbus Day weekend.
A similar deal collapsed Thursday because Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), who steadfastly has insisted on the increased Pentagon role in licensing, refused at the last minute to go along.
If the tradeoff holds, however, it will be a major victory for the Reagan administration and business interests, which, for different reasons, opposed both increasing the Pentagon's role in export licensing and the ban on new bank loans to the government of South Africa.
Both items had been considered likely to draw a White House veto even though without the legislation the president's authority to control exports to the Soviet bloc rested on the International Economic Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA), which many trade authorities said is vulnerable to court challenge.
House-Senate conferees had been stalled for five months over the issue of increasing the Pentagon's authority over export licenses to allied as well as other Western and non-aligned nations.
Garn, backed by three of the other four Senate conferees, insisted as recently as last Thursday that he would compromise no further on that issue, which he called "the one most important to me" in the bill.
He reportedly realized, however, that the Pentagon's authority had been watered down by earlier compromises, while at the same time the ban on bank loans to the South African government, already approved by the conference, had raised major administration objections.
Though far less stringent than the original sanctions approved by the House, the ban on loans would represent Congress' first move against South Africa for its policy of racial separation. Moreover, it would be a sharp congressional break with the Reagan administration's policy of "constructive engagement" -- an attempt to move South Africa's ruling white minority to a less racist stance by using a carrot of good relations rather than the stick of sanctions.
Those who care about sanctions for South Africa, such as Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), are less concerned over how big a role the Pentagon should play in export licensing, however.
To make it easier for those congressmen to swallow the removal of the bank loan prohibition, sources said, House conferees want to stiffen fair employment requirements in the bill.
Under the compromise approved last Monday by the conference committee, the State Department would have to issue a public report on how well American firms doing business in South Africa were following fair employment principles.
The new compromise would add some teeth to that by giving the president authority either to ban new investment in South Africa or to forbid exports to South Africa by companies that fail to follow fair employment practices there.
As a result, said one House source, "We appear to have the votes on our side."