Fearful that congressional support for a textile quota bill is snowballing, the Bush administration doubts that it can find the votes needed to support a promised presidential veto of textile legislation passed by the Senate in July and scheduled to come before the House next week.
"I don't think you can safely assume that a veto can be sustained," an administration trade official said this week.
Usually, an administration exudes confidence that it will beat back congressional attempts to override a veto. This time, however, the administration assessment may be a ploy to counter the widespread feeling on Capitol Hill that the textile bill offers lawmakers a "free vote," since a presidential veto, like the ones in 1985 and 1988, will keep the bill from becoming law.
The bill would limit the growth of textile imports to 1 percent a year, the same rate of growth as the U.S. market. The administration calls the limit "pure protectionism" and says it violates the United States's international trade obligations. The industry argues that it will be forced out of business without stiff quotas.
The fight over textile quotas is a perennial on Capitol Hill, where the industry regularly tries to gain through legislation greater protection than the White House is willing to give.
This year, though, the battle is nastier than usual because the industry has lost twice in the past five years and fears that this is its last chance. "Three strikes and you're out," said one staff aide involved in the fight.
The bill's supporters acknowledge, though, that they have found the Hill easier to work this year. Members of Congress are concerned about signs of an anti-incumbent mood among voters and are fearful of angering an interest group with possible grass-roots support. As an indication of the changing times, the bill passed the Senate by a larger margin this year than ever before.
In recent years, the textile forces have linked up with America's shoe manufacturers to build a more powerful coalition. For the current battle, they broadened their group to include agricultural and industrial interests.
The new coalition -- including sugar and cotton growers, maritime interests and steelmakers -- is bound by worries that the compromises made by the Bush administration in the Uruguay Round of global free-trade talks will cost them their protected position in the U.S. economy. These trade talks are likely to phase out a worldwide system of quotas that has long frustrated Third World textile exporting nations.
"We tried to broaden our focus, to get support in areas we haven't had support before," said Dan Frierson, head of the textile industry's Fiber Fabric Apparel Coalition for Trade (FFACT) and chairman of Dixie Yarns Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Underscoring its claim to a broad base of support for the textile bill, the industry mustered 4,000 people to march on the White House yesterday carrying banners they said contained more than 250,000 signatures in favor of the legislation.
The industry lobbying effort has been spearheaded by Roger Millikin, the conservative Republican chairman of Millikin & Co., a New York-based textile firm, who has spent weeks in Washington urging lawmakers to support textile quotas.
For its part, the administration is arguing that approving the bill will kill chances for the successful conclusion in December of the free-trade talks -- President Bush's top trade priority -- and send the wrong signal to allies in the Persian Gulf.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III pointed out in a letter to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) the importance of a more open policy for textile imports for Turkey and Egypt -- "countries that are indispensable to our efforts to solidify crucial international collaboration" against Iraq. Turkey reportedly brought up textile quotas in discussions with U.S. officials on the economic losses it suffered by closing down the Iraqi oil pipeline.
"At the very moment we are trying to forge an historic alliance to confront Iraqi aggression, we face the prospect of legislation that tells our allies the United States is willing to ignore its international obligations," U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills told an audience in Seattle on Monday.
A trade official said that under the legislation, as much as $30 billion in U.S. sales overseas could be subject to retaliation by countries prevented from exporting textiles to this country. "How can the world's largest exporter, at a time of a very strong export boom, essentially begin a global trade war?" the official asked.
And there's no agreement on what the legislation would mean for consumers. According to the administration, the bill would add $160 billion a year to the clothing bills of Americans. Supporters of the bill note that retail stores charge the same price for clothing imported from low-wage countries as they do for identical made-in-America products.
Donald R. Hughes, president of the American Textile Manufacturing Association, said low-cost imports have been responsible for the loss of 300,000 jobs and a 75 percent drop in industry profits during the first half of the year. "The future of our industry is threatened, and Congress must enact the textile bill to save it," said Hughes.
"In 1985, the industry said it couldn't survive three years without the quota bill," countered one administration trade official. "They said the same thing in 1986, 1987 and 1988. In fact, the industry has gotten stronger."