WASHINGTON -- In a hardball play aimed at preserving his last hope for a major legislative victory this fall, President Clinton threatened yesterday to call the Senate back for a rare "lame-duck" session after the congressional elections if it fails by then to vote on a far-reaching accord that would reduce many barriers to world trade.
"This is the biggest trade agreement in history, the biggest world tax cut in history, $36 billion in this country alone," a stunned and angry Mr. Clinton said yesterday of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade known as GATT. "The U.S. has to lead on this, and I intend to do everything I can to see that we do."
The president issued his threat after the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat and a vehement opponent of GATT, said that he would block action on it this year so his committee would have time to hold hearings "to expose GATT for what it is."
Mr. Hollings, a fierce protector of his state's textile industry, asserted that all sectors of the U.S. economy would be hurt by the influx of cheap foreign goods that would be allowed under GATT.
"Yes, we'll lose a million textile jobs," the senator said.
"But I'm not shilling for a single industry. I'm shilling for the United States of America."
Mr. Hollings, who said that he had warned Mr. Clinton not to push him to rush through a trade accord in the waning days of the congressional term, was clearly determined to take advantage of the time factor.
"We have to stop passing Republican trade policies," the senator declared, claiming that other "free trade" agreements have all but destroyed the United States' manufacturing base.
"We need to sober up . . . and rebuild our manufacturing backbone."
Mr. Hollings' maneuver imperils but does not destroy the 123-nation trade agreement, which would slash tariffs and lower trade barriers around the world in order to expand markets and encourage global economic growth. Painstakingly negotiated over seven years by two Republican presidents, as well as by Mr. Clinton, GATT could be taken up and approved by Congress next year with no penalty except for a delay in what its supporters say will be sweeping economic benefits.
But for a Democrat to deny his president and his party what was expected to be an important victory on trade before the crucial midterm elections is potentially devastating. GATT had risen to the top of Mr. Clinton's priority list after the centerpiece of his legislative agenda -- health care reform -- died for lack of support earlier this month. Campaign financing reform and other Clinton proposals are being stalled by Republican filibusters.
Not only is Mr. Hollings trying to deny the president his only remaining chance for a legislative success, but this time the president can't blame the Republicans for his problem. Most Republicans are expected to support the trade accord.
But the Associated Press reported yesterday that Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who supports GATT, said he believes enough questions have been raised about the accord that it might be better to defer approval until next year.
White House surprised
Mr. Clinton and his top aides were nonplused yesterday by Mr. Hollings' announcement. The senator had informed them of his plans the day before, but the White House doubted that he would follow through because he is a friend of the president.
"We are good friends," Mr. Hollings said. "I want to support President Clinton in every way I can. In my way of thinking, I'm doing that."
Mr. Clinton's threat to call the senators back to Washington for a post-election session was clearly a tactic to pressure them. The Constitution gives the president power to call special sessions of either or both chambers of Congress on extraordinary occasions.
Congress has not returned to work after congressional elections since 1982, when it remained in session almost until Christmas to raise taxes to counter the effects of a 1981 tax cut.
No one is eager for an exercise that would require the participation of some legislators who would already have been defeated at the polls. But it was unclear last night how that outcome might be avoided.
A spokesman for Mr. Hollings said that he did not expect the senator to relent.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine had no immediate comment. If he could garner 60 votes in the Senate, Mr. Mitchell might be able to force the GATT bill out of Mr. Hollings' committee. But that would be a difficult procedural hurdle with so little time remaining in the congressional session.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Washington Democrat, said that he supported the president's decision to press for action this year and was trying to make sure the House would not have to take part in any "lame-duck" session of Congress.
Mr. Foley said that the full House would vote on, and almost certainly pass, the GATT legislation next week. Congress is scheduled to adjourn by next weekend.