BATTLING THE STORM

THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION is rowing hard but losing way against the protectionist storm it expects to hit when Congress returns today. In moves designed to assuage the trade-jarring bent of a Congress now wholly controlled by the Democrats, it has in the last few days:

* Announced that it will impose 200 percent duties on European Community cheese, white wine, brandy, gin and other farm products in retaliation for a rise in Spanish feed-grain tariffs when Spain joined the EC. The EC in turn said it would retaliate against the U.S. move.* Pressured Canada into imposing a 15 percent tax on softwood lumber destined for the United States. The lumber industry in this country had sought to bar imports from Canada because of what it claimed was a hidden subsidy, the lower costs at which Canadian loggers could buy timber from provincial- owned forests.

* Lifted from Nicaragua, Paraguay and Romania, because of their violation of worker and human rights, the duty-free entry for goods extended to some 140 developing countries under the General System of Preferences. Taiwan, South Korea, Mexico and Brazil, all of whom had been expected to feel the sting of U.S. GSP, escaped.

* Promised to decide by Jan. 19 whether to continue export controls on products shipped to countries that violate human rights or sponsor international terrorism. Among the most controversial is a ban on the sale of oil and gas equipment to the Soviet Union. Oil state senators and representatives have been urging that the ban be lifted.

Set against these efforts to win friends on Capitol Hill was the devastating news that the nation's trade deficit in November had surged to $19.2 billion, a new record, and up from the previous peak of $16 billion in July. There was a mitigating circumstance. The record deficit resulted from a sharp increase in imports, which rose to $37.8 billion from $31.4 billion the month before - something explained only in part by a rush of importers to get under the wire before the imposition of a 0.22 percent Customs Service user fee Dec. 1.

Against this, however, was the upward revision of the October deficit to $14.7 billion from an initial $12.1 billion. As a result, what seemed to be a three-month August-October decline was a plateau, higher in fact than the May- July average.

The news has significance to things other than the debate over protectionism. Expectations of a drop in the trade deficit are the foundation for the administration's - and most private forecasters' - predictions of a strong 1987 economy. And such forecasts are the linchpin to hopes of reducing the budget deficit.

What fanciful ideas the Reagan people will come up with next becomes more and more intriguing.

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