President Reagan threw down the gauntlet before Congress yesterday by vetoing an omnibus trade bill three years in the making. Before day's end, the House of Representatives was set to hurl the gauntlet right back at him by voting to override the veto.
But Mr. Reagan has engaged Congress in a contest of wills that he is likely to win. The Senate will attempt to override the President's veto after it returns from a week-long Memorial Day recess, but prospects for an override vote in the upper chamber are said to be slim. The Senate passed the final version of the trade bill three votes short of the two-thirds margin required to override a presidential veto.
``I would say the probability is that the veto will be sustained,'' says Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virgina. Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri concludes: ``We aren't going to get a trade bill if the President doesn't want a trade bill.''
Reagan administration officials say that the President does want a trade bill.
In his veto message, Reagan repeated his opposition to provisions in the bill that would require 60 days' advance notice of plant closings and major layoffs, and restrict oil production in Alaska. ``I am convinced this bill will cost jobs and damage our economic growth,'' he said.
But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the President would support trade legislation that did not include the plant-closing provision and shorn of Alaskan oil restrictions.
Reagan suggested a compromise that that would make plant-closing notification voluntary. ``I support voluntarily giving workers or communities as much advance warning as possible when a layoff or closing becomes necessary. ... It is the humane thing to do,'' the President said in his message.
Yet even if the President does want to sign a trade bill into law before he leaves office in January, there may not be enough time. The Democrats who hold the majority in both houses of Congress have an ambitious legislative agenda that remains unfinished.
``We've got so much to do in our committee - catastrophic health insurance, welfare reform, the Canadian free-trade agreement,'' says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. ``It is going to be awfully hard to write another trade bill.''
It will be particularly difficult to move another massive trade bill through the Senate, where individual members have the power to offer multiple amendments and slow the legislative process. ``The rules being what they are in the Senate, it's very difficult to say that any stripped-down bill can be quickly turned around and sent back to the President,'' Senator Byrd says. ``Anybody who thinks that can be done in the Senate is simply naive.''
Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans alike have some strong incentives to try to put the veto behind them and come up with another bill. Some Republicans fret that Reagan's decision to veto the bill principally because of the plant-closing provision hands the Democrats a golden campaign issue. ``It makes us look like the water-carriers of the Fortune 500,'' grumbles a strategist for Vice-President George Bush's presidential campaign.
Indeed, many Democrats consider the veto to be a bonanza, particularly since it was triggered by the plant-closing provision. ``The President's brought the party back together better than we could ever do,'' exults House majority whip Tony Coelho (D) of California.
Representative Coelho and other Democrats believe the plant-closing issue lets them flog Republican economic and social policies in vivid, easily understood terms. In addition, some Democratic strategists believe that the issue could be used to repatriate blue-collar workers who helped loft Reagan to victory in 1980.
``The budget deficit is an abstract problem,'' says William Marshall, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council. ``Plant closing is something an ordinary worker can understand; it's an issue of common decency.''
Yet Democrats, too, have some strong reasons to bargain. The trade bill has been a top priority among Democratic leaders, a legislative showcase for the Democratic trade policies that they have wanted to contrast with the administration's.
``We really don't want three years of work to go down the tubes,'' says aDemocratic leadership aide. ``We managed to get the administration to buy on to so much stuff, to let it all go now would be too awful.''
Consequently, Democrats seem ready to try to come to some sort of accommodation with Republicans on the plant-closing issue. Says House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas: ``If, at first, you don't succeed, try playing second base.''
Staff writer Ron Scherer in New York contributed to this story.