One of the ironies in the Senate's inability to pass legislation sharply cutting imports of textile and shoes is that the opponents are threatening the bill's prime southern sponsors with one of their own best tactics, the filibuster.
The bill, which is sponsored by more than half the members of the Senate, has been blocked by Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.), who says he's learned much of what he knows about the filibuster from the likes of Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), principal sponsors of the bill.
"If I know anything about how to filibuster," Evans said, "it is probably due to them."
All three are past masters in "extended debates," with Thurmond holding the Senate record of 24 hours and 18 minutes for his 1957 filibuster against civil rights legislation.
But they appear to be trying to avoid facing Evans' filibuster, as they attached textile legislation Thursday to the budget reconciliation measure that is considered crucial to reducing the federal deficit. That bill operates under a strict time constraint that does not allow for filibusters.
"The southern conservatives can dish it out, but they can't take it," said one Senate aide.
Sources said textile interests want to avoid a situation in which opponents would use amendments both to prolong debate and gut the bill. They especially fear amendments being prepared by agricultural interests that would exempt countries from the import limits if they buy large amounts of U.S. farm products.
While cumbersome Senate rules are the principal reason the trade bill has not been approved, there are strong indications that many sponsors have second thoughts about making the measure the major focus of a congressional action on trade.
Some of its support, moreover, has been undercut by President Reagan's new aggressive stance on the trade deficit and on the need to lower the value of the dollar.
In two test votes in the Senate this month, the measure has fallen short of the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. It also appears certain that the textile bill lacks enough support in both the House and the Senate to override a threatened veto.
"The Senate wants to do something on trade," Evans said, "but is becoming increasingly aware that this is the wrong bill."
Nonetheless, under strong pressure from a powerful labor-industry coalition, the Senate still appears likely to approve the bill once it gets a chance to vote on it.
"We don't have the votes, at least not yet" to kill the bill, Evans said.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Dole (R-Kan.) pulled the budget reconciliation bill from the floor Thursday night, after the trade bill had been attached as an amendment. It was the second time he has been forced to stop debate on major bills to keep them from getting tangled in the procedural morass around textile legislation.
Dole indicated he will try to get Evans to back down from his filibuster tactics. Hollings said he is prepared to remove the textile legislation from the reconciliation bill if he is assured it will be voted on with any delay.
But Evans said he is "annoyed" at leadership pressure to "give up my rights as a senator."
"Those who oppose the bill should not bear the blame for the muddle the Senate is now in," he added.
Senate sources said Dole cannot avoid bringing the textile bill to a vote, even if it means facing a filibuster. Otherwise, sources said, its supporters will keep adding it to other bills, disrupting Senate consideration of important legislation.
Through all the bill's adversity, Hollings has exhibited supreme confidence that texile import limitations would become law. He said he is not "intimidated" by reports that Reagan would veto the bill.
"I'm convinced that he's going to sign the bill. I don't worry about Ronald Reagan when it comes to textiles in the Sun Belt. He'll sign," Hollings said.
"I hope so," Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said in a soft voice.