WASHINGTON -- Turning aside a last-minute surge of White House lobbying, the House of Representatives passed yesterday a broad trade bill that would require the federal government to adopt a more confrontational approach to reducing foreign trade barriers.
The vote, 280-145, reflected election-year considerations as much as foreign trade factors, with Democrats hoping to present the president with a measure that would force him into a politically unpopular veto and the Republicans hoping to be able to label the Democrats as crassly protectionist.
If the Bush administration had defeated the bill yesterday, it would almost certainly have prevented a trade bill from reaching President's Bush's desk this year.
Prospects for final passage remain uncertain. The House vote is 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a presidential veto.
And before that stage is reached, the measure would have to pass the Senate, where no comparable bill has even been introduced and the autumn legislative calendar is already crowded.
But in an election year a bill could move quickly, Republicans could start voting for it, and Mr. Bush might not necessarily follow through on this veto threat.
In a last-ditch effort to prevent the measure from becoming a campaign issue, Carla A. Hills, the U.S. trade representative, spent nearly two hours yesterday morning urging House Republicans to vote against the measure, while administration lobbyists patrolled the halls in search of wavering representatives.
Yet 34 Republicans joined 245 Democrats and an independent in support of the bill, while 15 Democrats and 130 Republicans opposed it.
The large number of members crossing party lines in both directions -- unusual on highly partisan issues -- reflected members' ideological positions on free trade and varying regional interests.
Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., and avowed free-trader who heads the subcommittee on trade, voted against the bill after repeatedly using the Republicans' time during the debate to criticize the U.S. auto industry's export efforts.
Rep. Richard T. Schulze, R-Pa., who is from a steelmaking state ravaged by imports, voted in favor of the measure after pointing out that it would help domestic industries that file trade cases against imports from formerly communist countries.
These countries' shortage of internationally traded currencies "will lead them to dump as many products as they can, as quickly as possible, into the hospitable U.S. market," Mr. Schulze said during debate this morning before the vote.
Yesterday's bill would also revive Super 301, a section of U.S. trade law, much reviled by foreign governments, that would force the administration to challenge foreign trade barriers on a faster and more rigid schedule.
The bill would oblige the administration to file trade cases against Japan, Korea and Taiwan because of their restrictions on U.S. rice exports and another trade case seeking to open the Japanese market for auto parts.
Under an amendment added on the floor yesterday afternoon, the bill would also order the administration to replace Japanese automakers' self-imposed limit of 1.65 million cars exported this year to the United States with a lasting limit at the same level imposed by both governments.
The bill would also require the administration to monitor the compliance of Japanese automakers with the Japanese government's informal offer to Mr. Bush in Tokyo last January to double Japanese purchases of U.S. auto parts by 1994.
The administration's strategy has been full of risk. It made little effort to water down the trade bill, and discouraged House Republicans from introducing a more limited alternative.