House Democrats, who have been accused of playing partisan politics with trade, have indicated a willingness to compromise with President Reagan and the Republican-controlled Senate in order to get a trade bill passed this year.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) signaled this conciliatory tone just before the House overwhelmingly passed a wide-ranging trade bill last week that Reagan branded as partisan and protectionist.
"I think there's a reasonable chance that the Senate will act on trade reform in the fall, and that we can go to conference and arrive at an agreement that the president can sign," Rostenkowski said in his closing statement before Thursday's 295-to-115 vote by the Democratic-controlled House.
"It's easy to bury trade reform under a welter of partisan attacks," Rostenkowski continued. "It's much more difficult to forge a bipartisan compromise on an issue we all know must be confronted.
Rostenkowski's views were echoed in interviews last week with other key Democrats. But three major hurdles remain in the way of Congress passing and the president signing into law any trade bill in the few months left before the November election:
*The Senate Finance Committee, which has been preoccupied with tax overhaul all year, is just getting to trade legislation, despite the promise of Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) to bring a trade bill to the floor.
*Reagan's strategy of refusing to deal with Congress on trade. Key senators want the president to unleash U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter and Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge, the administration's top trade officials, who have been muzzled by a Cabinet decision from taking an active part with congressional committees in forging a trade bill, so that both sides can meet half way.
*The possibility that the House's Democratic leadership of Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) and Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) would rather create an election-year political issue than actually push a trade bill through Congress. A less partisan stance is needed to achieve a compromise in conference if the Senate passes a bill.
"If Rostenkowski runs the conference, we can get a bill," said an aide to a Republican senator. "But if O'Neill, Wright or Tony Coelho [(D-Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee] are in control, trade legislation is probably dead."
It appears that the Senate now is on its way to passing a bill, probably late this summer. Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) has come on board and the panel's trade subcommittee, headed by Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), is holding hearings. Packwood and Danforth, moreover, have settled personal differences and, after having worked closely together to get a tax bill passed, are likely to do the same on trade.
It remains unclear, however, whether Reagan would be willing to back the Senate bill, knowing that it likely would be tougher on unfair trade practices than his philosophical free-trade orientation would like. A Senate-passed bill, however, is likely, to be more moderate than the House-passed measure.
The betting around the Senate is that the White House will continue to refuse to deal on trade because of its concern that the administration will be boxed into supporting a bill it doesn't like.
And the position of O'Neill and Wright toward a possible compromise with the Senate also remains in doubt.
Some Senate stratgists believe that the toughness of the House bill -- particularly provisions that would force Japan, West Germany and Taiwan to cut their "excessive" trade surpluses with the United States and which would extend the definition of unfair trade practices to include natural-resource policies, workers' rights and export targeting -- will make it easier for the administration to accept a Senate-passed bill.
Reagan is seen on Capitol Hill as facing strong political pressure in the fall to sign a trade bill, even if he doesn't like it. And the president's own party may exert pressure on Reagan to sign trade legislation if GOP leaders feel the fate of continued Republican control of the Senate hangs in the balance.
A bipartisan group of 36 senators -- headed by Danforth and New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynahan -- introduced a trade bill in November that covers much of the ground in the House legislation, although in more moderate fashion. Among the cosponsors are Majority Leader Dole, Republicans John Heinz (Pa.), John Chafee (R.I.), Jake Garn (Utah) and Richard C. Lugar (Ind.) and Democrats Bill Bradley (N.J.), Max Baucus (Mont.) and George Mitchell (Me.).
With the loose rules of Senate debate, there is a chance that a bill could turn strongly protectionist during floor debate, which likely would sour its chance of ever becoming law.
Looking toward Senate passage of a moderate bill, some House Democrats already are charting points of compromise. These include dropping provisions on education and adjustment assistance to aid workers whose jobs are lost to imports, which call for more federal spending, as well as labor rights and the amendment by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) that would force 10 percent cuts in the "excessive" surpluses of Japan, Taiwan and West Germany.
The compromise likely would retain, however, extensions of the definition of unfair trade practices and a tightening of presidential discretion to act against offending nations. The Senate might moderate them, though, in the hopes of gaining White House support.
"I honestly think the president can let the wind out of our sales by signing a bill," said Rep. Stan Lundine (D-N.Y.), who sponsored sections of the House measure dealing with exchange-rate stability and easing the Third World debt problem.
"Our responsibility is not to create an issue so we can win a few Senate races," Lundine contined. "If the president decides to fight, though, I think it is going to be damaging in quite a few Senate and congressional races."
Free-trade advocates such as Rep. William Frenzel (R-Minn.), who took the president's case before the Congress, hope no bill will pass because of the danger that it will increase protectionism in the United States.
Frenzel doesn't believe the House Democratic leadership will go along with a moderate trade bill. "They would rather have a live issue than a boring, moderate bill," he said.
He said the 59 Republicans who supported the House bill "reflected an impatience and frustration with the administration that is real" and should be read in the White House as "a warning, rather than as a signal of solid support."