The House of Representatives approved legislation yesterday that would limit growth of textile imports to 1 percent a year, but the 271-149 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a certain veto.
The Senate passed an identical bill two months ago by a veto-proof margin, and administration trade officials feared last week that the president would not get enough votes in the House to support a veto. But President Bush entered the fight yesterday, writing House members and urging them to oppose the legislation he labeled protectionist and against the goals of global free trade.
A majority of Republicans -- 101 of them -- were joined by 48 House Democrats in opposing the bill. Two hundred Democrats and 71 Republicans voted for the bill, which had the support of organized labor as well as the textile industry.
The failure of the House to get a veto-proof vote was hailed by American retailers, who said passage of a textile quota bill would increase prices for American consumers. "Today's vote, which failed to receive a two-thirds majority, indicates that short-sighted, costly special protection does not always carry the day in Congress," said Ronni Nass, vice president for imports of McCrory Stores and a director of the American Association of Exporters and Importers.
Similar bills passed Congress in 1985 and 1988 but were successfully vetoed by President Reagan. This time, the textile industry intensified its lobbying efforts, gaining support from industrial and farm interests who could lose special trade benefits as a result of the Uruguay Round of free trade talks.
Both sides cited the Persion Gulf crisis as reason for either supporting or opposing the bill. Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), holding military clothing as he spoke from the well of the House, said a textile company in his district was able to quickly produce the special protective gear to ward off poison gas attacks that was needed by U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. This kind of quick response wouldn't be made by a foreign manufacturer, he argued.
But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) said textile quotas would punish two of America's staunchest friends in the Middle East -- Egypt and Turkey.
The administration is concerned that such legislation would undermine the free-trade talks, which President Bush has made his top trade priority. The talks are designed to strengthen the rules of free trade and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Third World nations have made an end to the system of quotas that restrict their textile sales to industrialized nation a key demand in the trade talks.