White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan told Republican congressional leaders yesterday that President Reagan is willing to support some form of trade legislation to help ease pressure on American industries from foreign exports as long as it is not protectionist.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said the Republicans had given Regan a list of legislative options and said the White House chief of staff responded that the administration could accept "80 percent" of the measures.
The minority leader said Regan indicated that the White House was now "a little bit more pragmatic about what has to be done" and that the trade issue was now "on the front burner." But he said Regan did not specify what steps the White House would accept.
Michel said the purpose of the Republican proposals was to respond to the problems of U.S. industries without resorting to protectionist actions that Reagan has strongly opposed.
Reagan is scheduled to meet with the Republican lawmakers today to discuss the issue. Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said after being briefed on the House package that GOP leaders are "hoping we can work out some initiative" with the White House.
Regan's meeting marked the second time this week that the administration indicated a willingness to move on an issue in an effort to stave off a potential congressional rebuff. On Monday, Reagan announced economic sanctions against South Africa, an action designed to derail Senate passage of even tougher measures against that country.
Regan's comments came as GOP leaders told him there was bipartisan dissatisfaction with the administration's trade policies and growing support for tough protectionist measures.
Regan was warned at yesterday's meeting on Capitol Hill that recent moves by the administration were not enough to blunt pressure for protectionist legislation.
Last week Reagan announced that he would take action against Japan, Brazil and South Korea and the European community for alleged unfair trade practices.
Michel said yesterday that the Republicans were heartened by the apparent willingness of the White House to move more aggressively on the trade issue.
Republicans have grown concerned that the trade deficit -- and the loss of jobs to foreign industry -- could hurt them politically in the 1986 elections. Democrats have already promised to make trade a major focus of those campaigns. The House Democratic leadership has indicated it will bring up a major trade bill before the end of the year.
According to a briefing paper, the GOP package would make it easier to apply import quotas and tariffs on products of nations that unfairly target their exports at a specific sector of the American market. However, any action by the trade representative could still be vetoed by Reagan.
The package also includes a variety of proposals to increase U.S. sales overseas by making it easier for business to export goods. It also would permit the sale of Alaskan North Slope oil to Japan, allow lump sum payments for job retraining to anyone out of work because of import competition and permit individuals to withdraw savings early from individual retirement accounts (IRAs) without penalty if the money were used for job retraining.
Michel described the Republican package as a more "positive" approach to the trade deficit than several bills pending in Congress, such as one that would impose import restrictions on all textile goods.
However, he and Dole said it was far from certain that a White House-backed trade package would be able to slow the protectionist fervor on either side of the aisle in Congress.