The Clinton Administration's schedule for enacting a new world trade agreement was thrown into chaos Wednesday when an influential senator said he would block action on the measure until next year and President Clinton threatened to respond by keeping the Senate in session beyond Election Day to force a floor vote.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said there was "no chance at all" that the Senate would vote on the trade plan before adjourning because he would block action for 45 days.
Clinton, however, threatened to thwart Hollings' tactics by calling the Senate back into session until the 45 days elapse and the measure goes to a vote.
If the Senate adjourns at the end of next week, as scheduled, and the contentious issue remains unresolved, it could carry into the new year, the new Congress and a new, potentially time-consuming debate. Those delays could undermine confidence in the United States' commitment to liberalized trade rules to such an extent that international support for the pact could fall apart.
The unexpected standoff with Hollings jeopardizes the most important issue remaining on the President's legislative agenda, one that the White House had hoped would help Democratic congressional candidates fend off Republican challenges.
"I'm going to do whatever I can, within the law, to get this done this year," Clinton declared at a news conference with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin at the White House. "I will urge that the Senate stay in session, take a recess for the election, come back afterward and pass this."
Elsewhere Wednesday, United We Stand America, Inc., the political organization begun by Ross Perot, urged Congress to reject the legislation implementing the trade pact, although Perot himself has expressed only skepticism and not outright opposition. Perot, who was a presidential candidate in 1992, tried vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to block the North American Free Trade Agreement last year.
Hollings said Wednesday that his objection was to U.S. trade policy in general, rather than to potential threats the trade plan might pose to the textile industry in his state.
"I'm not shilling for a particular industry," he said. "I'm shilling for the United States of America."
The Administration had already tried to mollify complaints from textile manufacturers by shifting the way the United States would determine garments' countries of origin, to make it harder for China and other low-wage, high-production nations to export apparel to the United States.
Under the procedures by which trade legislation is acted on by Congress, amendments are prohibited once such measures are formally introduced in the House and Senate, as they were Tuesday.
The chairmen of the committees to which the legislation is referred may refuse for 45 working days to forward it for final congressional action--the step Hollings said he would take to block passage. But Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate International Trade subcommittee, said he would employ other parliamentary maneuvers to free the measure from Hollings' grasp.
Administration officials were uncertain whether Hollings was using his threat as a ploy to wrest new concessions from the White House, or whether he would insist on holding up consideration of the measure regardless of attempts at compromise.
Similarly, in an unusually public game of chicken between the Democratic White House and a Democratic senator with whom Clinton is close, White House officials insisted the President would not retreat. U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor said in an interview that Clinton has the support of a united Democratic leadership in the Senate.
If Clinton makes good on his threat to call the Senate back into session to run out the 45-day clock, after which Senate rules would force Hollings to release the legislation to the full Senate, a vote would take place before Christmas.
The agreement, negotiated over more than seven years and facing ratification by 123 nations, would slash tariffs--the taxes charged on imports--by an average of 40% and would undo other non-tariff barriers, such as quotas, to expanded world trade.