Newt, Bill, and GATT

AS a lame-duck Congress readies to grapple with GATT this month, those who thought the election brought a disciplined GOP with a clear mission to Washington are about to experience a display of old-fashioned horse-trading and - dare we use the word - compromise.

It's not high-minded bipartisanship that brings President Clinton and House majority leader-to-be Newt Gingrich together in support of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It's that both men are political visionaries who try to identify long-term needs and goals. Both see that lowering trade barriers will benefit the United States now - and even more in the future.

Opposition to the GATT world trade pact is bipartisan, too, and will center in the Senate, which needs at least a 60-40 margin for passage. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) has led the opposition, trying to protect the textile industry in South Carolina, which is likely to suffer. Senate majority leader-to-be Robert Dole will be the most crucial player. He has expressed concerns (as have others) that decisions by the new World Trade Organization created by the GATT would impinge on US sovereignty, leaving the US insufficient recourse if the WTO makes rulings against it.

In theory, the sovereignty issue sounds troubling. But in terms of the way GATT would play out in the real world, we think it's a false alarm. In short, US trading partners themselves have much to lose in bringing too many trade disputes against the US to the WTO.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina has asked the president to delay the vote until the new Congress convenes in January. Others have said the new Congress would better represent the American people's latest thinking. This sounds reasonable until one factors in that the ``fast track'' provision requiring an up-or-down vote expires Dec. 31. After that, the GATT would be open to endless amendments from both sides of the aisle. In supporting GATT now, Mr. Gingrich, we suspect, has judged the political situation correctly: that a prolonged GATT debate in the new Congress could throw his ambitious Contract With America agenda completely off schedule.

GATT isn't perfect and will have some disruptive effects on the American work force. Lawmakers voting for it ought to be ready to back up their votes with support for unemployment compensation and worker training to ease the adjustments. But it pushes the US toward the kind of high-skilled, higher-pay work force that futurists like Gingrich and Clinton can see America must have.

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