WASHINGTON -- A battle looms in Congress next year over the world trade agreement being completed in Geneva. It is not expected to be as emotional or hostile as this year's clash over the North American Free Trade Agreement. But lawmakers see signs of stiff opposition to the deal from a coalition of businesses, unions and environmental groups.
"This is going to be a difficult debate," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican who just returned from Geneva, having monitored negotiations for the latest draft of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
"It won't be a quiet 'yes' vote, with laudatory rhetoric about free trade," she said. "It won't be that easy. The draft is going to be heavily criticized, as well as broadly lauded."
An agreement on GATT, which sets the rules of trade for more than 100 nations, has been seven years in the making. Yesterday, the accord cleared its last major hurdle.
By midnight tonight, President Clinton must present Congress with a rough draft of the GATT accord. Congress will have until April 15 to refine the language of the draft agreement into legislation.
No one in Congress expects a replay of the blistering NAFTA debate, but a review of GATT is bound to be intense.
"The NAFTA debate in Congress clearly raised the standard of scrutiny for all trade agreements that follow," said Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who heads the Finance Committee's trade subcommittee.
Mr. Baucus said he believes that GATT will ultimately win support in Congress because of the persuasive case that will be made for lower import taxes around the world.
In a preview of the battle to come, one apparel company, Fruit of the Loom Inc. of Chicago, placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post warning, "GATT Crisis: Two million U.S. jobs hang in the balance."
Fruit of the Loom's chairman, William Farley, supported NAFTA. But he asserts that GATT, which would eliminate quotas and tariffs for apparel and textile manufacturers, would severely weaken the U.S. apparel industry.
"I don't see how I have any choice but to fight it," Mr. Farley said. Once quotas are removed, U.S. manufacturers will have to compete head to head with countries like India that subsidize the costs of apparel manufacturers and pay workers 25 cents an hour, he said. "That doesn't sound good to me."
Mr. Farley is not a lone voice. The business community, which spoke in unison in support of NAFTA, is divided over GATT.
Big exporters like Motorola and Intel are worried about changes in U.S. trade laws that would result from GATT. Other high-tech companies oppose some of the provisions to the intellectual-property protections.
"You won't have as much unanimity on GATT," said Judge Morris, an official with the National Association of Manufacturers.