The House of Representatives will vote today on a bill setting strict limits on imports of textiles, clothing and shoes that has split the Democratic leadership and faces an almost certain veto if it passes both houses of Congress.
The legislation is being pushed by a labor-industry coalition that argues that heavy imports cut corporate profits and costs American jobs. It has the strong support of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), but Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and the head of the panel's trade subcommittee, Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), are leading the opposition.
There are also regional splits, with all the congressmen from the Pacific Northwest, whose export-oriented economies could suffer from retaliation, opposed to the measure. Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.) called it "blatant protectionism."
Despite the opposition and the veto threat, the bill is expected to pass easily. The major question is whether it will receive the 276 votes it got last year when the House overrode President Reagan's veto. The override effort failed in the Senate, which has yet to consider the legislation this year.
The bill is being rushed to the floor in return for an agreement by the textile forces not to attach their quota measure to the broad-based trade legislation passed by both houses this summer and now being considered by a conference committee. Industry and labor supporters of the legislation have brought hundreds of textile workers and mill owners to Washington for a last-minute lobbying blitz.
In an effort to gain a veto-proof majority in both House and Senate, textile-state lawmakers toned down the bill to meet some of the major objections to it. Instead of rolling back textile imports, this year's bill would limit the global increase to 1 percent a year. In addition, the legislation covers imports from all countries, including Canada and Western Europe, instead of concentrating on major textile exporting nations of the Third World. The latter provision has led to charges of racism.
"There's not much to debate with the bill. The new version takes care of most of the arguments against it," said Carlos Moore, executive vice president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute (ATMI).
Acting Commerce Secretary Bruce Smart, however, attacked the bill as "special interest politics" and said it would increase consumer costs and spur trade protection in other countries. He argued the industry does not need import protection because profits rose 67 percent last year, unemployment stood below the national average for the first half of 1987 and the mills and factories operated at 95 percent of capacity for the first three months of the year.
The industry responds with government figures showing that profits dropped 12 percent in the second quarter of this year, which ATMI President Robert G. Laidlaw said "shatters the argument that increased textile profits in 1986 make legislation unnecessary." Former ATMI president Dewey Trogden, here for the last-minute lobbying effort, said profits are not large enough to finance industry growth and the introduction of new technology.
In a report earlier this month, William R. Cline of the Institute for International Economics said current quotas on textiles and clothing raise the cost to American consumers by at least $20 billion a year. Textile imports remained steady this year on a square-yard basis but increased 8.7 percent in dollar value, while clothing imports increased 11 percent on a volume basis.