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Senate Rallies Bipartisan Vote to Pass GATT, 76-24

By Helen Dewar
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Senate Thursday gave final congressional approval to American participation in the biggest and most ambitious trade agreement in history.

Joining the House in a triumphant bipartisan finale to the debilitating partisan strife of the 103rd Congress, the Senate approved President Clinton's legislation to implement the latest expansion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) by a vote of 76 to 24. Moments before, the Senate scaled an even more critical procedural hurdle in producing eight more than the required 60 votes to overcome objections that the agreement broke budget rules because revenue lost from tariff cuts was not fully offset by spending reductions. The vote on the budget waiver was 68 to 32.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., had challenged the agreement on budget grounds, calling it a "budget-buster" that would increase the deficit by $25 billion over the next decade. But GATT supporters argued its costs would be more than offset by revenue from economic growth stimulated by expanded exports.

The historic agreement, the product of seven years of negotiations, will create a new framework for trade among 124 nations around the world, lowering tariffs by one-third, bringing down costly subsidies for farm exports, strengthening protection for patents, inventions and recorded entertainment and taking the first steps toward regulating trade in services and investment. It creates a World Trade Organization to resolve disputes and enforce the rules.

The agreement will benefit U.S. manufacturers of medical instruments, farm equipment, drugs and electronic products, whose exports will no longer face other nation's tariffs. Some less-efficient smaller farmers and the nation's textile and clothing manufacturers are most at risk from increased imports resulting from the lowering of U.S. trade barriers.

"Any way you cut it, we're the big beneficiary," said incoming Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan. Even though both benefits and drawbacks have probably been exaggerated, it is a "net gain for the American people," he added.

Approval of the pact "affirms the leadership role of the United States around the world," while its rejection would have constituted a "signal of American weakness," added outgoing Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine.

But Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., who led opposition to the pact, described the vote as "the gravest mistake the U.S. has ever made on economic policy."

On both votes in the Senate, a majority of Democrats and Republicans supported the agreement. On the critical procedural vote, 37 Democrats and 31 Republicans voted yes, while 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans voted no.

The House also produced a big bipartisan vote for the agreement Tuesday in approving it, 288 to 146.

With the help of business executives and Republican leaders in both houses, Clinton lobbied for the agreement to the end, even after supporters concluded they had enough votes to pass it. Clinton hosted a breakfast Thursday at the White House for wavering senators of both parties and lobbied senators by phone through the rest of the day.

At the White House, Clinton hailed the vote and said, "Just like the historic vote on NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) a year ago, this vote for GATT shows once again that our country is moving in the right direction, reaching out to the rest of the world and looking at the best interests of our own people."

Joining Clinton in the reflected glory of the vote was Dole, who endorsed the pact after wresting some concessions from Clinton and the put his prestige on the line in trying to assure a big Republican vote for the agreement.

The pact's supporters contended that it would produce hundreds of thousands of American jobs by increasing exports generated by lower foreign tariffs and give American consumers access to cheaper goods from abroad. Revenue lost through lower U.S. tariffs will be more than offset by tax revenue from economic growth-up to $3 for every $1 in reduced tariffs, according to U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor..

But opponents argued that it would encourage multinational companies to move jobs to countries that compete unfairly with low wages and widespread use of child labor, leading to job losses rather than gains, and warned that the U.S. would be ceding sovereignty to a new trade bureaucracy over which it has little control.

Thirty-six other countries have already ratified the agreement, and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen has said he anticipates that the rest will follow by Jan. 1.