WASHINGTON -- The beleaguered 103rd Congress, whose Democratic leaders lost majority control in this month's election, returns to Washington today in hopes of scoring one final achievement: approval of a sweeping trade agreement that could boost global prosperity.
It will be the first time in nearly five decades that Washington has been witness to the odd spectacle of ousted leaders presiding over a lame-duck session. And the stakes are much higher this week than they were in 1948, when the defeated Republicans returned for a two-hour post-election session to take care of housekeeping matters.
"The rest of the world is looking at us," President Clinton said yesterday in a last-minute pitch for approval of the 126-nation General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, which aims to cut or eliminate most tariffs and trade barriers.
"We have a golden opportunity here to add $1,700 in income to the average family's income in this country over the next few years, to create hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs, to have the biggest global tax cut in history, and to fulfill our two responsibilities: our responsibility to lead and remain engaged in the world, and our responsibility to try to help the people here at home to get ahead," Mr. Clinton said at a White House ceremony. "We need to get on with it and do it now."
With Democratic Rep. Thomas S. Foley performing his last day of service on the speaker's rostrum before slipping into involuntary retirement, the House is scheduled to vote on GATT early this evening after about four hours of debate.
Thanks largely to the support and cooperation of Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Republican who is expected to succeed Mr. Foley as speaker when the new Congress convenes in January, the trade agreement is expected to pass the House by a comfortable margin.
Later tomorrow night, the departing congressmen will bid farewell to each other at a reception in honor of Mr. Foley, who was turned out of office by the voters of eastern Washington state after 30 years in the House.
Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine, the Democratic majority leader who is retiring this year, is likely to have a more difficult task shepherding GATT through the Senate tomorrow and Thursday. Opponents are expected to raise a procedural hurdle that will require a super-majority of 60 votes to surmount.
But critical support for the trade agreement is coming from Republican Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas -- the majority leader-to-be -- and Phil Gramm of Texas, who is expected to compete with Mr. Dole for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination.
Democratic Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, both GATT opponents, said yesterday they were counting on the roughly one-third of the Senate that has not yet made a commitment on the procedural vote.
"The American people know nothing about the GATT agreement," said Mr. Metzenbaum, who argues that approval of the trade pact should be put off until next year after controversial features -- such as GATT's failure to address the issue of child labor -- can be fixed.
But former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who served in both the Reagan and Bush administrations and led the #i bipartisan endorsements of GATT at the White House yesterday, argued: "A vote to delay is a vote to kill" and "a retreat from international leadership."
If Congress does not approve the GATT treaty before the end of this year, it will no longer be protected by "fast track" rules that allow only for limited debate and no amendments.
The urgency of the lame duck session is prompted by the belief that any U.S. effort to change the agreement, which took seven years and three presidents to negotiate, would prompt other nations to pull out and result in economic chaos.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who is stepping down this week as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he hoped approval of GATT would vindicate the 103rd Congress, if not his party.
"This Congress, which has been much maligned, has really done some historic things," he said, referring not only to GATT but to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Clinton economic program, both passed last year.
Mr. Clinton and the Democratic leadership had tried to take up the trade agreement before Congress adjourned in October. But they were blocked by Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, who used his power as chairman of the Commerce Committee to hold weeks of hearings that pushed action beyond the congressional adjournment date.
Mr. Hollings, whose state is a leading textile producer, believes U.S. industry will suffer if protective barriers are removed, allowing an influx of foreign goods that can be made more cheaply.
In the waning days of the debate, opposition to GATT seems to be concentrated on opposing ends of the political spectrum. Conservative Republican Patrick J. Buchanan has joined forces with liberal Democrat Ralph Nader.
Both fear intrusions on the United States' sovereignty by a new World Trade Organization, an international tribunal under the new trade agreement that would settle trade disputes.
Public fears stirred by these opponents and some radio talk show hosts who also object to the WTO created enough concern to prompt Mr. Dole raise public doubts about the treaty. The Senate Republican leader eventually won a promise from Mr. Clinton to support an escape clause that would make it easier for the United States to withdraw from the World Trade Organization if it chooses.
At the White House, bipartisan cooperation on GATT is seen as a barometer of whether the next two years will be a productive partnership between Mr. Clinton and Republicans in Congress or, instead, degenerate into more partisan sniping that leaves voters even angrier than they are now and threatens Mr. Clinton's re-election chances.