Washington — Chalk one up for the presidential quest of Rep. Richard Gephardt, whose tough trade measure squeaked past the House of Representatives on Wednesday, but faced a possible reconsideration vote late yesterday. The Missouri Democrat could use a boost or two. Mr. Gephardt is running for president from comparative obscurity. The last congressman to launch a successful presidential bid, James Garfield, did so in 1880.
Though highly regarded in Washington, Gephardt registers but a blip on the radar screen of national candidate preference polls. And he finds himself jostling for the political limelight with an increasingly crowded field of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The House handed Gephardt a significant political victory when it voted, 218 to 214, for his controversial trade proposal. Attached to the massive trade bill (providing it survives reconsideration), the so-called Gephardt amendment would require US retaliation against countries that have built up large trade surpluses with the United States through unfair trading practices.
The tough measure is closely identified with its author, who sponsored a similar plan last year.
Its retaliatory approach to trade negotiations is strongly opposed by many in Congress; White House opposition has been implacable. But more important to Gephardt is that his hard-line stance on trade has been embraced by organized labor.
So Wednesday's victory in the House ensures that Gephardt's name will continue to be invoked frequently in the ongoing congressional trade debate.
The Senate must still fashion its version of the trade bill, and attempts to attach Gephardt's amendment there are likely to fail. But it will force some serious bargaining between House and Senate negotiators when they sit down to write a compromise trade bill.
``Right now, he's nowhere'' in the presidential race, concedes Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, the House majority whip and a supporter of Gephardt's presidential bid. ``But with the amendment in the trade bill it'll be `Gephardt vs. the Senate,' `Gephardt vs. the administration.' The exposure will be an invaluable opportunity for him to establish what he's about and where he's coming from.''
Gephardt's victory was the result not only of an intensely fought legislative debate, but of a 10-year career in the House that has been propelled by burning ambition, distinguished by hard work, and rewarded with a meteoric rise to the top ranks of the Democratic political establishment. It illustrates how he has parlayed his post on the influential Ways and Means Committee and chairmanship of the Democratic Caucus to further his presidential ambitions.
His name has been closely associated with a number of significant pieces of legislation - last year's tax reform bill, for example. ``Gary Hart talks about new ideas, but he didn't carry anything when he was in the Senate,'' says Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma. ``Well, this is where the rubber meets the road. Dick delivers.''
This year, however, Gephardt is devoting his energy to two major pieces of legislation that are given little chance of enactment.
In addition to his trade amendment, Gephardt and Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa are sponsoring sweeping farm legislation - the Harkin-Gephardt bill, which would give farmers the right to vote for mandatory production controls to boost crop prices.
Gephardt denies the trade and farm bills have been crafted with an eye to his presidential aspirations, but the proposals do address matters of deep concern to voters in Iowa.