A backlash has begun against the strong congressional push for tougher trade laws, with leading U.S. export industries lobbying hard with the argument that protectionist bills will hurt more Americans than they will help.
Like the White House, these industries appear to have been surprised by the protectionist fervor that has gripped Congress since it returned from its August recess, and until the last 10 days have not been active in the increasingly emotional debate.
But now farmers, high technology companies and airplane manufacturers have joined retail groups in trying to gather enough votes to uphold an expected presidential veto of a bill to sharply roll back imports of textiles and apparel.
That bill, with about two-thirds of the House and more than half the Senate as cosponsors, appears virtually assured of congressional passage, possibly as soon as next week.
The House Rules Committee yesterday cleared the way for its consideration on the floor, where it is scheduled for debate Wednesday.
The textile bill drew early and strong support on Capitol Hill, with sponsors of the bill claiming that 300,000 workers have lost their jobs over the past 10 years because of surging imports that have captured about half the American market. The bill gained more support in the Senate with the addition of protection for the domestic shoe industry, where 60 percent of the U.S. market is held by imports.
There are signs, though, of an erosion of support, even among congressmen and senators who are signed on as cosponsors. Vote counters don't believe that loss of support is enough to keep the bill from passing, however.
Supporters, for instance, barely beat back, by a single vote, an amendment in the House Ways and Means Committee that would have gutted the bill. And a vote in the Senate Wednesday night indicated that the legislation may not have enough backing to muster the votes needed to override a presidential veto.
"I think people are very queasy about it," said Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who called the textile bill "just too terrible to support" despite the addition to the measure of help for the shoe industry, which he favors.
Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.) also noted a waning of commitment for the bill, which he opposes. "I think the tide is going out," he said.
"People are having second thoughts. While there is a great frustration about the trade imbalance, people are beginning to realize this bill doesn't treat the disease," said Evans, whose threatened filibuster has delayed Senate action on the bill until next week.
A cloture petition to force a vote will likely be introduced during the debate by the bill's sponsors, headed by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) -- who holds the Senate record for running a filibuster for 24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957 to block civil rights legislation.
By the time of the debate, however, members of the Senate will have had a chance to hear strong opposition from groups who argue that the cost of protecting textile and shoe jobs falls too hard on other parts of the country. Danforth estimated it will cost American consumers $14 billion a year in increased prices for clothing and would jeopardize $33 billion of U.S. exports -- including soybeans, wheat, corn, aircraft and chemicals -- which would face retaliation.
He said textile employment would increase by no more than 4 percent -- at a cost of $140,000 a job.
"Retaliation would likely be taken against our most competitive sectors: agriculture, aerospace, electronics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals," said a Commerce Department analysis, which is being widely circulated as part of what Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige and Undersecretary Bruce Smart have described as an effort to mobilize the silent constituency for free trade.
Retaliation against airplane exports of $2.9 billion could cost nearly 75,000 jobs, many of them from the Boeing Corp. in Evans' home state of Washington, the Commerce Department study said.
"If Congress does anything in this protectionist vein, the only thing it's going to do is cost us jobs," said Vico E. Henriques, president of the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association, which has a $5.5 billion trade surplus.
"We have heard from our customers," said Mark Ellison of the National Association of Wheat Growers, which is planning a blitz on Washington in two weeks. "If we start passing textile bills, the ability and willingness of these countries to buy from us will be severely hampered."
The retailers started the battle against the textile bill, arguing that it would increase consumer prices and cut back on the public choice. One group, the American Fair Trade Council, sent toy teddy bears to congressmen and newspaper reporters with the slogan, "Don't let the trade bill kill Christmas" to make its point that toys will be twice to three times as costly if the bill passes. As a result, toys were exempted from the Senate bill.