The Senate approved the comprehensive trade bill Wednesday by a vote of 63 to 36, but Senate Democrats conceded they could not marshal enough support to override President Reagan’s promised veto.
Senators immediately began suggesting modifications in the bill, which had been three years in the making, but their initial comments left considerable doubt that they could reach an agreement that Reagan would accept.
“This is not a phoenix that can arise from the ashes in perfect form,” warned Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.).
Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) suggested that Congress could simply delete a provision, strongly opposed by Reagan, that would require most manufacturers to give 60 days’ advance notice of plant closings and major layoffs.
An Emotional Rejoinder
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said that without the plant-closing provision, Congress could enact the bill even if Reagan vetoed it again. “I know darn well we (Republicans) can deliver the votes,” Hatch said.
In an emotional rejoinder, however, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) argued that Congress should not “throw in the towel” and hinted that he would resort to a filibuster if necessary to include the plant-closing provision in any future trade bill. “Let the President of the United States change his mind,” Kennedy shouted.
The bill, aimed at cutting into America’s enormous trade deficit, would toughen U.S. retaliation against unfair trading practices of other countries, streamline procedures for aiding industries suffering from foreign competition, authorize new retraining programs for workers who lose their jobs because of imports and create new farm export subsidies.
But the Senate’s 63-36 vote fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority that would be required to enact the bill over Reagan’s veto.
Among Democrats, 52 of the 53 present supported the bill; only Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin voted no. Among Republicans, 11 voted for the bill and the other 35 opposed it.
California’s two senators split, with Democrat Alan Cranston voting for it and Republican Pete Wilson opposing.
Wilson said in a statement that he voted against the bill even though it contained six provisions he had sponsored himself. Apparently alluding to the plant-closing provision, he said:
“Had the bill just focused on trade matters, I could have supported it. But organized labor, for election purposes, attached provisions that are unwise and will cost American jobs.”
Sought by Labor
The plant-closing provision, long sought by organized labor, was designed to give workers some warning that their jobs were about to be cut out from under them.
The House had passed the bill last week on a 312-107 vote. That would be more than the two-thirds needed to override a veto, but both chambers must muster two-thirds majorities to enact a bill over a President’s objection.
Before Wednesday’s Senate vote, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas said he assumed Congress would approve a second trade bill later this year. “I don’t think anyone’s flatly closed the door on trade legislation if the veto is sustained,” he said.
Dole’s Democratic counterpart, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, disagreed. “Another bill is not wired,” Byrd cautioned.
Danforth, arguing for a streamlined measure that would get the President’s blessing, described the plant-closing provisions as a “200-pound barbell” that could not be carried by the trade bill.
He said Wednesday’s 63 votes for the bill were a “high-water mark” that would probably be eroded on a vote to override Reagan’s veto. Democratic leaders, he added, must decide whether they want a bill or an issue to use against Republicans in the November election campaigns.
Bentsen questioned whether Reagan wanted any trade bill at all. “To lose the trade bill over a peripheral issue like plant-closing is just too high a price to pay,” Bentsen contended.
Sees No Override
But he, too, acknowledged that it would be virtually impossible to override a veto, saying: “The odds are very much against it.”
Sen. David Karnes (R-Neb.), who voted against the bill after meeting with the President Wednesday morning, said he was assured that the Administration would introduce another trade measure that Reagan could sign.
But other senators noted that backers of the controversial items in the present bill would try to add them to any new legislation, possibly touching off new veto threats from the White House.
Before giving final approval to the bill, Congress had jettisoned many of the protectionist provisions that had aroused Reagan’s opposition. In this category was the Gephardt amendment, named for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and once passed by the House, which would have mandated retaliation against Japan and other countries with large and persistent trade surpluses with the United States.
The bill would also extend presidential authority to negotiate multilateral tariff agreements until 1993 and set up a council to improve the competitiveness of American products. Among its many non-trade provisions, it would repeal the windfall profits tax on oil and impose watered-down sanctions against Japan’s Toshiba Corp. because a subsidiary had sold militarily useful technology to the Soviet Union.