The Senate Finance Committee has quietly approved a bill that the carter administration says could raise the price of beef in this country by as much as 17 cents a pound.
The bill, originally introduced by Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. (D-Tex.), is designed to protect U.S. cattle raisers from fluctuations in beef prices by placing new restrictions on imports of foreign meat.
The cattle industry, which is strongly backing the bill, thus joins a wide variety of U.S. industries - ranging from steel to color television, from nuts and bolts to shoes - seeking protection from foreign competition.
Opponents of Bentsen's measure say it would be inflationary. Yesterday the Council on Wage and Price Stability criticized the bill as having a "disproportionately harmful effect on lower-income consumers."
The bill also provided what one administration source called a "tough wicket" for Robert S. Strauss, who is a Texan and a longtime Bentsen ally, but who is also President Carter's chief inflation fighter.
However, Strauss, too, is opposing the measure, writing to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) to protest that it would "increase meat prices sharply."
The Bentsen bill aims at insulating domestic cattle prices from the roller coaster ups and downs that have long made both consumers and producers unhappy.
When prices are high, producers rush their cattle to the slaughterhouse to cash in on the market. But that leads to oversupply that drives prices down.
The usual result is a massive withholding of cattle from slaughter, while the producers wait for the supply to shrink and prices to rise again.
In the view of the domestic cattle industry, much of the problem results from foreign imports that account for roughly 6 to 7 percent of the beef consumed in the United States.
Most of it, in the form of frozen of chilled boneless beef, comes from Australia and New Zeland. It's produced from older cows and bulls and, after its arrival in the United States, is used almost exclusively for hamburger.
In addition, the United States also takes relatively sizable imports of cooked, tinned meat like corned beef and animal food from Argentina, Mexico and other countries of Central and South America.
In 1964, Congress imposed quotas on meat imports but the cattle industry regards that law as inadequate.
Bentsen's proposal calls for changing the present quotas according to what economists call a "countercyclical formula." It would place the greatest restrictions on imports during periods when U.S. meat production si high and allow more imports when domestic slaughter is low.
His plan would adjust the present quotas for unprocessed beef and veal imports through a complicated formula involving the ratio between estimated current beef production and the average annual production during the preceding 10-year period.
It also would extend the quota system to include cooked meat imports that weren't covered by the 1964 law. They would become subect to a quota based on average annual imports from 1973 through 1977.
In pushing the change Bentsen has denied that it would be inflationary and has argued instead that it would benefit consumers in the long run. If more imports were allowed during periods of low domestic production, he contends, U.S. producers would be constrained from holding their cattle back from slaughter to drive prices up.
However, Strauss, in his cited State Department and Agriculture Department estimates that if the Bentsen proposal had been in force from 1968 through 1977 it would have reduced unprocessed beef and veal imports 26 percent from the 11.9 billion pounds that actually entered the country.
In 1977 alone, Strauss contended, it would have increased retail beef prices by 16 or 17 cents a pound and added $4.3 billion to the total food bill of U.S. consumers.
His arguments had some impact on the Finance Committee, which eased some of the proposal's restrictions before it came up for a committee vote last Wednesday. In the end, though, the proposal got through the committee relatively intact, with only Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.) voting against it.
Administration sources said yesterday that at a strategy session on Monday the decision was made to continue the battle. Specifically, the sources said, it was decided to send a new letter to the Finance Committee with a conciliatory promise that the administration is willing to explore the possibility of applying some kind of countercyclical formula to meat imports.
But, the sources added, the bottom line was to warn that the administration still finds the Bentsen plan unacceptable and, as one source put it, "a prime candidate for a presidential veto!