The House gave final congressional approval yesterday to federal guarantees for $1.5 billion in loans for steel, oil and natural gas companies, aiming to help industries that have been rocked by low prices.
The 246 to 176 vote came seven weeks after the Senate passed the bill by 63 to 34. Supporters said they expect President Clinton to sign the legislation.
Sponsors of the legislation said the three industries have suffered thousands of job losses as prices have dipped. Steel companies have also been battered by low-cost imports.
"We cannot allow foreign nations to export their unemployment to the United States," said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), one of the sponsors.
Opponents said the measure was little better than the protectionism the U.S. government criticizes other countries for. And they said it would force U.S. taxpayers to back some companies and banks that have simply made bad business decisions.
The bill would provide steel companies federal guarantees for $1 billion in loans. Steel companies would be eligible to borrow up to $250 million each at market interest rates. U.S. oil and gas producers and service companies could borrow up to $10 million each from a fund guaranteeing $500 million in loans.
The measure would cost taxpayers an estimated $270 million to back the loans. That would come from trimming federal administrative costs.
Meanwhile, a $187 million break for the struggling U.S. steel industry fell by the wayside as Congress rushed to assemble its tax-cut bill.
The House-approved tax break--not a high priority for all manufacturers--was dropped during House-Senate negotiations late Tuesday as lawmakers sought to complete work on the tax package before their August vacation at week's end.
Meanwhile, Clinton administration officials were to meet today at the White House with steel manufacturers and union leaders and offer new proposals to help the industry.
The proposals include a pledge to oppose any new World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans that would further subsidize foreign steel industries and a Commerce Department review of foreign steel subsidies.
But with the surge in steel imports beginning to decline, the administration believes continuing to enforce existing laws is the right course, one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The industry has filed trade complaints against a variety of countries, and won several cases, but those take a long time and the different kinds of steel would have to be handled separately.
Manufacturers have complained that as soon as one country reduces exports of a certain type of steel, another steps up its exports, leaving American docks just as loaded with inexpensive, hard-to-compete-against steel.
At least three publicly traded steel companies have declared bankruptcy since the import surge began, and many companies have reported operating losses.