WASHINGTON -- In another setback for President Clinton, the House voted last night to put off final action on a sweeping trade agreement -- meant to boost global prosperity by opening world markets -- until after the November elections.
Under a compromise designed to soothe jittery Democrats and appease combative Republicans, the House voted 298-123 to take up ratification of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT, on Nov. 29 -- a few days before it is to be considered in the Senate.
President Clinton and House Democratic leaders, who had hoped for a House treaty vote this week, agreed to the delay in return for broad support on a procedural vote, which would signal that final approval of GATT is all but certain before the end of the year.
We believe that getting people to vote for the procedural motion "locks them in to vote for GATT," said a senior administration official. Approval of the procedural motion "is tantamount to approval of GATT."
Action on GATT by the end of the year is critical to the international politics of the trade agreement because many of the other 122 nations are waiting for the United States to take the lead.
Republican Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore County, one of two Marylanders to oppose the motion, called it "a historic vote."
"I predict to any one of you thinking of voting one way now for political reasons and another way later . . . you can't have it both ways," said Mrs. Bentley, who was joined in opposition by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland.
The compromise averted what could have been a crippling loss for Mr. Clinton on his final top priority of the congressional term. No more than 170 Democrats were willing to stand with him on the treaty yesterday. The votes of Republicans, generally strong supporters of free trade, were even scarcer.
Republican GATT supporters blamed the crumbling support on the Senate's delay, caused by the resistance of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
That knocked the wind out of what had been strong, bipartisan House support for the trade measure.
Many Democrats are afraid to buck labor leaders and other GATT opponents so close to elections in which the party is vulnerable.
"They got bushwhacked by one of their own chairman," said Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican, who led support for the GATT agreement among his colleagues.
Mr. Dreier suggested wryly that the White House has so mishandled the trade legislation -- in part by presenting it to Congress so late in the session -- that the administration must have been trying "to confuse the opposition by having no discernible strategy at all."
GATT supporters gave up hope for a vote on the treaty this week when they ran into opposition from House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, whom they had been counting on to round up votes.
White House officials believe Mr. Gingrich leads a faction of Republicans who are reluctant to give Mr. Clinton any victory in this highly partisan atmosphere.
The cliffhanger was appropriate for the last major piece of legislation to be considered by the 103rd Congress, which has been marked by nip-and-tuck battles.
In fact, House leaders had approached a procedural vote on the crime bill in much the same fingers-crossed manner in August and were stunned to see it lose. A week of lobbying by Mr. Clinton and concessions to House Republicans were required to save the measure.
Rejection of GATT by the House at this stage would have sent a bad signal to the Senate, to the already jittery bond markets and to the scores of other nations, including France and Japan, withholding their approval of the treaty.
Just weeks ago, the 123-nation GATT agreement seemed an unlikely candidate for last-minute hand-wringing. Negotiated over seven years by three presidents, GATT was expected to win congressional approval with a strong bipartisan vote.
The treaty would cut worldwide tariffs by about $740 billion, reduce other barriers to trade and offer new protections against piracy of intellectual property, such as computer programs and drug patents.
Mr. Clinton says GATT would create thousands of jobs in the United States, although some industries, such as textile manufacturing, are likely to suffer.
Though generally opposed by labor unions, environmental groups and some Republicans, GATT has been considered a much safer bet than the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA won narrow approval in Congress last year after Mr. Clinton battled for months against a populist campaign to defeat it inspired by Ross Perot.
But Mr. Hollings shocked President Clinton when he announced last week that he would not allow a Senate vote on the legislation before the election recess this weekend.
As chairman of the commerce committee, Mr. Hollings has authority to hold the bill for 45 days, forcing his colleagues to return to Washington in December to consider GATT.