Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen struck back yesterday at U.S. trade representative Clayton K. Yeutter's charge that a provision of the Senate trade bill designed to cut U.S. dependence on imported oil is "sheer protectionism."
Bentsen said the provision is needed to make sure the United States does not face oil shortages, gasoline lines and economic disruption as it did in the 1970s because of its dependence on Mideast oil.
Yeutter's charge, made in a speech Thursday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce International Forum, "shows how this administration reacts when they have a provision they don't agree with," said Bentsen in a telephone interview he initiated.
That kind of approach, he added, will push the Democratic-controlled Congress away from cooperating with the Reagan administration on trade legislation, which is expected to come up for Senate consideration this week.
Bentsen and other members of Congress are sensitive to charges that Congress will pass a protectionist trade bill. Republican and Democratic legislators were angered last year by administration tactics of labeling as protectionist congressional trade initiatives and warned that they would strike back this year.
At the same time, a bipartisan coalition in the Senate that includes Bentsen and Republicans such as Sen. Bob Packwood (Ore.), ranking minority member of the Finance Committee, and Sen. John C. Danforth (Mo.), former head of its trade subcommittee, has been working with the administration to craft a trade bill that President Reagan will sign.
As a result, the administration generally has been low key in its criticism of parts of the legislation it disagrees with to keep from polarizing the debate. In his radio speech Saturday, for instance, Reagan avoided calling congressional initiatives protectionist and instead stressed positive parts of the administration's program. He offered to work with Congress "on a competitiveness package that will complement these efforts."
The closest he came to criticism was to say, "For Congress to place severe restrictions on international trade with tariffs and barriers, and to limit my ability to utilize our trade laws when necessary, would damage our own prosperity and that of virtually the entire world."
Reagan is planning a lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill this week to press the Senate to pass a responsible trade bill. As part of the effort, he met at the White House last month with Bentsen and Packwood, and Yeutter visited Bentsen on Wednesday to go over their differences on the trade bill.
The Bentsen-Yeutter meeting was cordial, adding to Bentsen's anger when he saw that Yeutter had attacked one of his pet provisions in the bill. The comment was not in the prepared remarks, which were far less accusatory.
The Bentsen provision, added to the legislation by the Finance Committee on the last day of its markup, would require the president to prepare a program aimed at reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil that would be triggered when imports reach 50 percent of consumption. This program could consist of conservation measures, incentives for domestic producers, increases in the strategic reserves or import restrictions, including a tax.
While Yeutter mentioned the full menu of alternatives in his prepared text, he focused solely on the import restrictions in the speech he delivered to the business group.