WASHINGTON — DECISION time arrives this afternoon in the House on what Vice President Al Gore calls one of the five most important votes of this century.
The vote is on whether to ratify the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), an all-encompassing agreement designed to lower trade barriers worldwide.
Backers expect little trouble passing GATT in the House.
But passage in the Senate, scheduled to vote Thursday, is a little squeakier. It will take 60 votes to suspend a budget rule in the Senate in order to pass the GATT bill.
For a vote with such a strong potential impact on the economy - US and world - the GATT vote comes at a strange point in the political life of the country.
Congress has been called into a lame duck session just for this vote. It is the last business to be conducted by the outgoing Democratic leadership before handing both chambers over to the new Republican majority.
Like the NAFTA vote last year, GATT has the strong support of the Clinton administration, but on Capitol Hill it has stronger backing among Republicans than Democrats.
So the 103rd Congress is handing over the keys on a note of strong bipartisanship. Even if GATT fails in the Senate, it has the support of Republican leaders there as well as Democrats. Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas came to an agreement with President Clinton last week that added his support to the agreement.
GATT has existed to set the basic rules of international trade for 47 years, but the votes this week are to ratify the outcome of the so-called Uruguay round of negotiations among 123 nations, which took more than seven years.
Now some 90 countries are awaiting the American vote before approving the agreement themselves. GATT advocates have argued that if the US does not approve the agreement before the end of the year, international support for it will unravel.
GATT is a 22,000-page agreement that lowers tariffs worldwide an average of about 33 percent. Mr. Kantor estimates this to be a $744-billion global tax cut. For the average family, according to Rep. Robert Matsui (D) of California, that should translate into lower prices worth about $150 in savings a year.
If the benefits are spread widely, the costs are not. Although the US will continue to protect itself against textile and apparel imports with tariffs, the current system of import quotas is phased out under GATT. This is likely to mean job loss in the textile and apparel industries, which is why Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina blocked GATT earlier this fall and forced this week's special session.
On the other hand, half of the price savings for consumers under GATT is estimated to come from ending import quotas for clothes and cloth.
The new version of GATT would also create a World Trade Organization, which would act as forum for negotiating trade disputes. Senator Dole suggested, and the Clinton administration accepted, that the US set up an additional panel, of US judges, to review the organization's decisions.
GATT also extends trade rules to trade in services for the first time and strengthens protections of intellectual property.
Overall, passage of GATT would add as much as half a trillion dollars to annual world economic output by the turn of the century, according to advocates.
The US share of that annual increase is estimated at $100 billion to 200 billion a year.
Voters are increasingly conscious of the insecurities as well as the efficiencies of free trade, however. ``The middle-class, suburban voter appears to have lost his appetite for international trade,'' says Congressman Matsui.