WASHINGTON -- In its final act under Democratic control, the House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to approve a world trade agreement that is intended to boost competition by opening markets around the globe.
The House voted 288 to 146 to approve the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT. It sent the 124-nation accord to the Senate, where debate opens today, with a vote scheduled for tomorrow night.
A closer vote is expected there, but Clinton administration officials said yesterday that they were hopeful of gaining another strong bipartisan victory.
The GATT agreement would cut tariffs by 38 percent worldwide, expand the rules of world trade to new areas, such as agriculture and services, and create a powerful new World Trade Organization to referee disputes.
"It is probably impossible to imagine a single act of this Congress that can do more to contribute to our economic growth," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, who received a prolonged ovation from his colleagues as he took the floor for the last time in his 30-year career to close the GATT debate.
"In any great undertaking, there are concerns and risks," said the lame duck Washington state Democrat. He implored his colleagues to be part of something "worthy to be remembered by this Congress."
But Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the Ohio Democrat who led the opposition to the trade agreement, warned Americans to remember yesterday's vote, predicting it would benefit businesses at the expense of U.S. workers.
"Do you feel your wages, your buying power, your standard of living have been slipping?" Ms. Kaptur asked. GATT, she said, "is just more of the same. Larger corporate profits, higher prices, lower wages. Working people of America, there is nothing in this GATT agreement for you."
Six members of the Maryland delegation voted for the agreement; Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat, and Helen Delich Bentley, the Baltimore County Republican, voted against it.
"This vote demonstrates to the American people that Democrats and Republicans can work together," President Clinton said in a statement.
In his final remarks to his colleagues, Mr. Foley said: "In leaving, I thank you, I salute you, and wish you every success in the future. I wish you some of the same satisfaction and some of the great opportunities that I have had."
In contrast to the last poignant moments of the 103rd Congress, the GATT vote was preceded by four hours of generally lackluster debate.
Outcome never in doubt
Thanks to strong support of both the ousted Democratic leaders who presided over the first lame-duck session in 12 years and the GOP leaders who will take over in January, the outcome was never in doubt.
Much of the drama that dominated last year's fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement was missing yesterday as fierce opponents of such accords held their fire.
Among them was Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the Democrats' majority whip, who is facing a challenge in his bid for minority whip.
But references to this month's election, in which Democrats were ousted throughout the nation and lost both houses of Congress, were sprinkled throughout the debate. Both supporters and opponents of GATT claimed to have gotten the message from voters.
"GATT gets government out of the way so individuals can engage in free exchange," said Rep. Dick Armey, the Texas Republican who will become House majority leader in the next Congress. "Will we let our citizens decide, or do we think big government knows best?"
Rep. Bill Richardson, the New Mexico Democrat now serving as chief deputy whip, noted the the bipartisan approval of GATT was an appropriate beginning for the new relationship between Republicans and Democrats.
"Returning Democrats should cast the vote as part of the new era of bipartisanship," he said.
But Mr. Armey told reporters that the White House should not mistake GOP cooperation on GATT as a sign of Republican willingness to do favors for Mr. Clinton.
"We think he's giving our position a boost, because he's presented to the Congress a trade agreement that was launched by two Republican presidents," Mr. Armey said.
Many of the nearly four score departing members made final speeches on the floor. All the Democrats who took turns presiding from the speaker's rostrum were among those who will not be back next year.
Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who has been among the most fiercely partisan in his party, offered the Democrats an especially kind send-off.
"Even though we have strong differences, I respect each and every one of you," he said. "You've served your country well. God bless you for making the effort and accepting the pain that goes with this job."