Senate's Last Turn at Bat To Settle the Fate of GATT

WHEN the United States Senate puts the hotly debated world trade accord to vote today, President Clinton could gain a political boost at home and enhanced credibility overseas by delivering on an internationally popular treaty.

Mr. Clinton, who has personally pleaded with senators to support the bill, has hardly had time to enjoy his boost from Tuesday's vote in the House of Representatives, which approved the 124-nation General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) by an overwhelming majority. Instead, the president has energetically manned his own phones since the House vote, trying to win the Senate votes needed to pass the trade legislation.

Opponents: unlikely allies

The White House and other GATT proponents have faced unflinching opposition from an odd assortment of unlikely allies, including conservative Patrick Buchanan, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, labor leaders, and environmentalists.

Workers' rights and ecology advocates have lobbied against the GATT because of a perceived threat to American jobs from an anticipated flood of cheap imports produced by overseas labor operating free of environmental and other regulations. But the most controversial aspect of the GATT has to do with GATT's arbitration of disputes.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) - GATT's successor organization, which is scheduled to start up by Jan. 1 - will serve as the negotiating forum to free up trade in everything from wheat production to telecommunications services. It has been designed to make sure countries adhere to the new rules they've agreed to, a task that is bound to be tough in politically prickly areas such as textiles and farm goods.

And, under the new system, the WTO is vested with powers some US lawmakers find objectionable: If it deems that one of the WTO's 124 member countries is violating the international agreement, the WTO can order that country to terminate that practice.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman-in-waiting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasts the WTO as a dangerous organ designed to usurp US sovereignty. A Senate staffer says the fiery lawmaker will argue against the trade pact today with the following points:

Helms' objections listed

* The US carries the same weight as the other 123 signatories, as in the United Nations; but at the UN, another forum in which the US could find its interests compromised, the US has veto power.

* US taxpayers, whose voting power in the WTO is negligible, will pick up as much as one fifth of the GATT's costs (the number is based on each country's gross domestic product).

* The international panels set up under the WTO are secretive and pose a danger to the integrity of the US laws.

GATT's prospects in the Senate brightened last month when Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas reached a compromise with the Clinton administration that provides the US an option to withdraw from the WTO if it repeatedly rules against American interests.

The president still has a hard sell calling on the Senate to display the same bipartisanship that pushed the GATT bill over the top in the House, by a 2-to-1 vote. Senate defectors from the pro-GATT camp worry the White House. Whether their strength is enough to prevail will become evident during the 20 hours set aside today for debate.

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