TOPICS > Politics

Nerves of Steel

June 22, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a vote on protections for the steel industry. Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s generally accepted that today’s revitalized American steel companies produce some of the best quality steel in the world and at the most competitive prices. But the domestic steel industry has suffered recently. Foreign steel producers, unable to sell in the suffering Asian market, shipped their steel, much of it lower quality, to the United States and sold it illegally at rock bottom prices.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM, (R) Pennsylvania: We have seen the levels of steel rise as far as imports into this country two, three, four, five times the amount from some countries in the past two and a half years, and it continues.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum led a charge of steel state Senators hoping to slap quotas on steel imports to give domestic producers a chance to rebound. Republican Mike DeWine is from Ohio, the state that now produces more steel than any other.

SEN. MIKE DE WINE, (R) Ohio: It is estimated, Mr. President, that 10,000 steel workers have already lost their jobs, and the independent steel workers predict job losses of as many as 165,000 if steel dumping is not stopped. Mr. President, it is time for the United States Senate to take action.

KWAME HOLMAN: West Virginia’s two Democratic Senators also joined in urging that their colleagues do what the House did overwhelmingly in March: Approve quotas on foreign steel, limiting imports to pre-crisis levels. But Delaware’s William Roth, chairman of the Finance Committee, warned against taking that action.

SEN. WILLIAM ROTH, Chairman, Finance Committee: If we decide to go down the path of quotas, we must also keep in mind that the price ultimately will be paid by the American consumer. By raising the average price of products made with steel, the quota constitutes an artificial tax on ordinary Americans, regardless of wealth or income. Keep in mind that the tax will not be insignificant. According to the Institute of International Economic Study, the bill will at most save 1,700 jobs in the steel industry, but will do so at a cost of the economy of about $800,000 a job.

KWAME HOLMAN: A parade of farm state Senators followed Roth to the floor, predicting their constituents would be harmed if steel quotas are levied.

SEN. DON NICKLES, (R) Oklahoma: Well, if we put in arbitrary quotas on what we are going to import, a lot of other countries are going to retaliate, and they have a right to do so under the WTO. We are going to be violating the trade laws that we’ve agreed to, and there’s going to be a response. And Senator Grassley just mentioned the biggest response is going to be against agriculture.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, (R) Iowa: Agriculture is perhaps the most vulnerable sector of our economy to foreign retaliation, and our trading partners know it. Retaliation is not a thing of the past. It is a hard-ball tactic that frequently is used as an instrument of national policy.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, (R) Texas: I want to vote for this bill, but I can’t. I want to because I think part of the steel industry has a legitimate case, but I can’t because voting for this bill would make it worse than the relief that they seek.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s scheduled vote was only the first step in determining the fate of the steel quota bill. 60 votes were needed to move ahead to full debate and West Virginia’s Rockefeller urged his colleagues to do that.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, (D) West Virginia: Please, this is the motion to proceed. We traditionally are fair about these things. If there’s a complex subject, steel is only produced in 16 states in a major way. A lot of people have a lot to learn, and we are not voting on the quota bill. We are voting on the motion to proceed to simply talk about it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden, for one, was convinced to go along.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, (D) Delaware: I’m going to vote to proceed, in the hope that between now and the time we vote on this bill, that the administration and others understand there’s a need for an answer. This is not the answer. I would vote against the bill but I will vote to proceed.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was Majority Leader Trent Lott who agreed to allow supporters of steel quotas to bring the procedural vote to the floor.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: But don’t fool yourself. This is not an inconsequential vote. Don’t be saying, “oh, we can vote for this on a motion to proceed and then you can vote against it later on.” In order to go forward, the proponents have to get 60 votes today, but only 51 tomorrow. So I urge my colleagues, don’t say, “well, I’ll give them the procedural vote.” What you may be giving them is something that would be very dangerous, because then we could be voting on the substance itself.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite the overwhelming support the steel quota bill received in the House, President Clinton said he would have no choice but to veto it if passed the Senate as well. Commerce Secretary William Daley tried to preempt today’s vote by lobbying Senators on the Hill yesterday, promising a full investigation of steel dumping and threatening tariffs against violators.

CLERK: Mr. Coverdale, no.

KWAME HOLMAN: But as Senators cast their votes, it became apparent quota supporters would not reach the 60 votes needed to proceed.

CLERK: Mr. Smith of Oregon, no.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, they failed even to attract a majority.

SPOKESMAN: On this vote the yeas 42. The nays are 57. The motion is not agreed to.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators Moynihan of New York and Roth of Delaware called today’s vote a major reaffirmation of 50 years of American trade policy. Steel state Senators said they would regroup and try to devise another way to help the steel industry.