Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, Senate Finance Committee chairman, indicated Wednesday that he fears that trade legislation approved by the House could hurt any remaining hope of salvaging a worldwide agreement under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Despite that reservation, he hinted that he might support a strengthening of U.S. trade law, perhaps through the revival of a 1988 measure that required the United States to name nations with broadly restrictive trade regimes.Nevertheless, during a hearing aimed at measuring support on the committee for trade legislation this year, the powerful senator gave no clear signal whether he would offer his crucial support for such a measure.
The House two weeks ago approved a bill largely aimed at forcing firmer action by the United States against Japan, particularly its barriers to trade in autos and auto parts. The most controversial part of the bill is its requirement that the Bush administration begin negotiations on imposing formal limits on U.S. imports of autos and auto parts from Japan.
The bill passed 280-145, 10 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised veto by the White House.
Even if House Democrats can shake loose those extra votes, a similar bill faces greater opposition in the Senate.
Sen. Bentsen did not directly comment on the House bill, but said at the outset of the hearing that he was most concerned about the impact of any legislation on the Uruguay Round of world trade talks, which he said have been in a "deep freeze" over the unwillingness of Europe and Japan to lower agricultural trade barriers.
During testimony from industry officials representing the movie, lumber and semiconductor industries, Sen. Bentsen twice criticized aspects of the House trade bill. He suggested that a provision allowing any private citizen to initiate a review of a trade agreement would overwhelm the limited resources of the Office of U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills.
He also said a part of the bill calling for reciprocal trade action against countries that maintain trade barriers would be useless, for example, in forcing a country like Thailand to better protect copyrighted videotapes.
Despite those seeming objections to the House legislation, Sen. Bentsen indicated that some legislation might be appropriate to boost U.S. exports, which have been sliding lately, and help the the U.S. economic recovery.
"Our deficit with Japan rose last year and is up another 15 percent this year," he said. "Maybe it's time we put a little more weight into Ambassador
There is broad support in both the House and Senate for a revival of the 1988 Super 301 law, which is widely credited with forcing trade reforms by Japan and other countries. That renewal is a part in the House bill.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the likely sponsor of any broad trade bill in the Senate, suggested Wednesday that he might prefer a simple revival of Super 301, and predicted that President Bush would feel compelled to sign the bill
because of its successful record and the wide support it enjoys.