WASHINGTON -- The United States last night triumphantly concluded an eight-year effort to lower world trade barriers when the Senate gave final approval to a sweeping 123-nation pact in the last act of the 103rd Congress.
"This was really a vote about the two great challenges we face: our role in the world and what we're going to do for our own people," President Clinton said last night at a brief White House ceremony, where he was flanked by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.
"Let's make the GATT vote the first vote in a new era of cooperation," Mr. Clinton said.
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT, will cut tariffs worldwide and reduce other obstacles to competition in hopes of boosting global prosperity. Its approval adds a major achievement to the mixed record of the Democratic-led Congress, which now fades into history as the Republicans prepare to take over in January.
In the key legislative test, the Senate voted 68-32 to overcome a procedural hurdle blocking GATT that required at least 60 votes. GATT itself was later approved 76-24, with 41 Democrats and 35 Republicans voting for it. Maryland's Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes voted for GATT.
The House had approved the accord Tuesday by a similarly strong bipartisan margin of 288-146. Mr. Clinton must sign the legislation before it can become law.
The GATT victory gave a much-needed boost to Mr. Clinton, whose public standing fell when his party was thrashed nationwide in last month's midterm elections.
But the measure would never have passed without the support of the Republicans -- led by Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas -- who are preparing to take control of Congress. Mr. Clinton went out of his way last night to express his appreciation to the Republicans for their help.
Negotiated by 3 presidents
Negotiated by three presidents over nearly a decade, GATT is one of the most far-reaching achievements of the first two years of Mr. Clinton's term and probably the major accomplishment in a year of stalemates.
"It's a good deal for America and a great improvement over the current system," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, who is retiring to become a part-time trade emissary to Ireland -- and, some suggest, the next baseball commissioner.
The Clinton administration argues that by opening foreign markets to U.S. goods, GATT will produce 500,000 jobs in this country and effectively cut taxes on U.S. consumers by reducing tariffs. The accord will knock down long-standing barriers in Europe and Japan to U.S. agricultural goods, and for the first time protect intellectual property -- such as computer programs -- from being pirated.
An international tribunal, the World Trade Organization, will be created to settle trade disputes.
"Anyway you cut it, we're the biggest beneficiary," said Mr. Dole, the Senate Republican leader whose support for GATT was critical to its approval. "Our tariffs are already low. A one-third cut in tariffs overall certainly means disproportionate benefits to U.S. exports."
But opponents complain that GATT will also make it easier for U.S. manufacturers to have their goods made overseas, where labor is cheaper and environmental restrictions are less strict. Those products, critics say, could be sold in the United States for higher prices, allowing businesses to profit while workers suffer.
GATT is "about winners and losers: American winners and American losers," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who believes that industries in his state would suffer.
Some opposition to GATT was also focused on the World Trade Organization, which critics fear will infringe on U.S. sovereignty. Mr. Dole, who called that argument a "red herring," said that such complaints had turned Wichita into the "anti-GATT capital of the world."
Thirty-three other nations have endorsed GATT. Now that the United States has approved it, other countries are expected to follow suit before Jan. 1, when the trade agreement is scheduled to take effect.
The GATT victory gives Mr. Clinton and the Democrats, who lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades, a positive note on which to conclude after the failure of health care reform and many other initiatives this year.
As part of their tireless lobbying campaign, Mr. Clinton and Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen met yesterday at the White House with a group of mostly undecided senators.
Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said Mr. Bentsen told the senators that "they will regret the vote the rest of their lives" if they opposed GATT and that its defeat would have an "adverse reaction" in the stock and bond markets.
Mr. Dole, who is expected to be elected today as the new majority leader, drove a hard bargain with Mr. Clinton in exchange for his vote. He insisted on a mechanism that allows the United States to easily withdraw from the World Trade Organization if it chooses.
Mr. Dole told his colleagues yesterday that he had been implored by GATT opponents such as Patrick J. Buchanan and Ross Perot: "Don't fix it; kill it." But he said he decided to vote for GATT, "if we can fix it, and it's good for America."
Fight until the end
Opponents, led by consumer advocate Ralph Nader on the left and Mr. Buchanan on the right, kept up the fight until the end. Two dozen anti-GATT protesters, one dressed as a lame duck, chanted outside the White House as senators arrived for breakfast with Mr. Clinton.
"The passage of GATT over widespread and intense public opposition embodies Washington business as usual at its worst," Lori Wallach of Public Citizen said after the vote.
The procedural hurdle to GATT was raised by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who complained that the loss of tariff revenue would raise the budget deficit.
To make up for the lost tariffs, the administration is cutting agriculture subsidies and implementing a grab bag of revenue-raisers, including changing the minimum interest rate on savings bonds and reducing the liability of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.