Trade momentum slowed in Congress

President Reagan may have defused a political bombshell when he promised tougher action against unfair trade practices. But trade issues continue to generate plenty of fireworks on Capitol Hill. Despite Mr. Reagan's speech Monday, senators continued laying plans to protect United States shoemakers and the textile industry from the onslaught of less expensive imports.

But none of the protectionist legislation is likely to become law. Reagan's speech-in-time has toned down his critics, bought him more time, and probably assured him enough support to sustain his veto of protectionist bills.

The White House initiative also shows just how slippery trade is as a political issue.

Many Democrats see the estimated $150 billion trade deficit as a major weakness for Reagan. ``I don't think he's neutralized it much,'' said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D) of Missouri in an interview. ``Everybody's going to welcome action, but he seems to be doing it reluctantly.''

A cosponsor of one of the major trade bills in Congress, Representative Gephardt says of the Reagan administration, ``I doubt if they'd be doing any- thing if we hadn't'' pushed the issue.

Now that the President has moved, however tentatively, Democrats have a less clear-cut case. They are obligated to welcome him into the boat, at least long enough to see if he will row with them.

``The major new thing is the change in attitude,'' says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, applauding the President, but adding he awaits further proof of change.

``I'm ready to work with him,'' says Senator Bentsen, who is a cosponsor of the Gephardt trade bill.

Republicans have been almost as skeptical as Democrats on White House trade policy. ``We're still working on a trade package,'' Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas told reporters yesterday.

Sen. John C. Danforth (R) of Missouri has held that ``results, and results alone, will be able to restore the credibility of our trade policies.''

Meanwhile, members of Congress are discovering the complex trade problem does not yield to easy answers.

``The trick is to do something for business without doing something for the industries that are inefficient,'' Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin told reporters this week. He cited shoes as one industry to which he would say, ``I'm sorry. Byebye.''

At a hearing on textiles, Sen. John H. Chafee (R) of Rhode Island expressed concerns about aftereffects of bills to reduce imports. A worker in Rhode Island produces steel fasteners at a low price ``because he gets the steel from Korea,'' Mr. Chafee pointed out.

The pressure for reducing imports has pushed the textile bill into the fore as the first test for trade legislation. Some 300,000 US textile workers have lost their jobs since 1980 because of competition from imports made by low-paid foreign workers, especially in the Far East.

But importers told the Senate international trade subcommittee that American textile companies have caused their own demise. ``Many plants were shot down because they were obsolete,'' said Arthur Ortenberg, vice-president of Liz Claiborne Inc.

Martin Tandler, president of Tandler Textiles Inc., charged that mills in the United States have been geared to produce quantity instead of quality.

Democrats are fashioning trade into a campaign theme that permits them to stand up for America, just as Republicans have done in defense debates.

As the issue of trade gathers momentum, some in the party are urging Democratic leaders to be cautious.

``I think they're taking an awful risk on the issue,'' says Greg Schneiders, a Democratic consultant, who says party leaders might be misreading the public.

``Americans want fairness in trade policy,'' he says. ``If that means retaliation against countries with unfair practices, then they support that.''

But overall, ``they seem to understand that a lot of our trade problems are our own making,'' he says, pointing out that Americans drive foreign cars and use imported products and see them as superior.

``I think the President has the potential to actually make some gains on this issue if he holds his ground,'' says Mr. Schneiders. He suggests that Democrats join Reagan and ``use a rifle-shot approach,'' as opposed to generalized protectionist measures to deal with the trade restrictions of America's trading partners.

Democrats make a mistake as they try to make trade into an issue like social security, which has long helped the party, says the consultant.

``It's interesting that a Democratic consultant'' has such doubts, said Mr. Gephardt. He points out that a top conservative commentator, Kevin Phillips, has called trade woes a possible Achilles' heel for the GOP.

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