The Senate, forcing President Reagan's hand on trade policy, Wednesday approved a bill that would impose strict quotas on textile imports from more than a dozen Third World countries.
The textile bill has been the focus of a protectionist movement in Congress that has swelled as the nation's trade deficit has approached a record $150 billion this year and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Reagan Opposes Bills
Reagan, a strong advocate of free trade, has not said directly that he will veto the bill, although a White House spokesman declared after the vote: "Our position has not changed. The President continues to oppose all protectionist bills."
However, the bill's sponsors, including such key Senate Republicans as Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, insist that they are optimistic that they can talk Reagan out of a veto.
On the ballot next year will be a number of crucial Senate seats in the South, where textile mills have been hit hard by imports. A veto could spark a backlash against Republican candidates in a region where the party is showing strength.
The bill, which also includes limits on shoe imports, passed 60 to 39. Although the measure had picked up three more supporters than it had in a test vote several weeks ago, it still fell short of the 67 votes it would need to override a veto.
Both California senators, Democrat Alan Cranston and Republican Pete Wilson, voted against the bill. A similar measure passed the House last month, by a wide margin, but not by enough to override a veto. The two versions must be reconciled before the measure can be sent to Reagan.
If the textile legislation ultimately becomes law, its supporters and opponents predict that it will be followed by a spate of measures aimed at insulating other industries from foreign competition. Imports of textiles and clothing have soared more than sixfold in the last decade, putting thousands of U.S. textile workers out of work, the bill's backers said.
The legislation, Thurmond insisted, "will enable the textile industry to survive." Opponents, however, insisted that the industry is already one of the most protected in the nation and has lost jobs because of technological advances rather than competition.
They argued that the bill would hurt consumers by boosting clothing prices--30% on mid-priced adult apparel, according to estimates by the American Fair Trade Council, a textile industry group.
Moreover, they said, it would spark retaliation by foreign countries against U.S. exporters in other industries, including agriculture and aerospace.
The bill would set textile imports from Korea and Taiwan 30% lower than their 1984 levels, roll back imports from Hong Kong by 14% from 1984's rate and freeze the level of imports from China, Japan, Pakistan, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil and Singapore.
Leading the opposition was Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.), who argued that the measure "pits East against West, when we trade off a textile worker for an aircraft worker, or a farmer for a seamstress."
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) added: "Don't be deceived here into believing that we can transfer the cost of our problem onto foreigners who don't vote in American elections."
Still others suggested that the bill is unfair because it does not affect imports from Europe and Canada.
Some of those who supported the bill acknowledged that they are uneasy with its provisions but hope that its passage will prod the Administration into being more aggressive in using current law to lower imports.
Reagan, facing heavy criticism from Congress, recently announced plans to crack down on trading practices that have been deemed unfair, such as dumping foreign goods into U.S. markets at prices lower than the cost of producing them.
"I believe the Administration in the last two or three months has adopted a more aggressive, realistic trade policy," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said as he prepared to vote for the bill, which he predicted would be vetoed.
In large measure, however, the trade deficit is caused by forces beyond the government's immediate control--most notably, a strong U.S. dollar that makes imported goods a bargain and U.S. exports more expensive for foreigners.