Dole Caught in Cross Fire over Free Trade

Article excerpt

N.Y. Times News Service

WASHINGTON _ The phone is ringing endlessly at Sen. Bob Dole's offices in Kansas and on Capitol Hill, but not just with congratulations for his new status as majority-leader-designate.

Barely nine days after he was swept to a victory even he did not predict, he is caught in the cross-currents as Republican party leader and nascent statesman, as potential presidential candidate and as a free-trader with second thoughts about the popularity of free trade.

It is not a happy place to be, especially when the argument is over an international agreement that everyone says will have a vast but unknowable effect on the fate of the world economy and that is so staggeringly dense _ four volumes costing $145 at the Government Printing Office _ that no one knows anyone who has actually read it.

"I wouldn't want to be Bob Dole," said Jerry Junkins, the chief executive of Texas Instruments, who is the head of a business lobbying group, the Alliance for GATT Now, that is trying to push the wavering senator to support the agreement, which would cover 123 nations.

"Boeing is big in Kansas, and so are the farmers," he said, ticking off others with longstanding ties to Dole who stand to gain from the agreement. "But he must be thinking about other things as well," he suggested, things that include primaries in New Hampshire and Iowa that are only 18 months away.

The vote on the world trade agreement, which will be taken up by a lame-duck session of Congress after Thanksgiving, has suddenly become the crucial first test for Dole, who is currently the Senate minority leader. He is trying to convince President Clinton that unlike Rep. Newt Gingrich, who is soon to be speaker of the House, he is interested in compromise. He is trying to look like a statesman.

At the same time, Dole is feeling the heat from the right wing of his party, which would happily hand Clinton an embarrassing international defeat. And he has to decide whether to side with the growing numbers in his party who, after five decades of unquestioned support for free trade, now join many Democrats in arguing that it is a code word for destroying middle-class jobs and surrendering American sovereignty to an ominous-sounding group of anonymous foreign judges called the World Trade Organization.

Faced with so much pressure from so many sides, Dole has done what he usually accuses the White House of doing on foreign policy issues: He has waffled. He likes the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, he keeps saying, because it will force America's competitors to lower their tariffs, to stop government subsidies of companies that compete with American industry and to extend copyright protection to including computer software, sound recordings and movies, all strong American exports.

But he has problems, he keeps saying without being too terribly specific, with many provisions in the legislation. On Thursday afternoon, as Dole traveled in Minnesota on what his office called personal business, his staff was putting together a modest list of changes that, in the words of one negotiator in the process, "will give him a way to protect himself politically."

The White House concedes that without Dole, the trade agreement is dead. So, administration officials, in the first taste of the next two years, went out of their way on Thursday to say that they were sure that whatever Dole wanted Dole would get.

"I'm fairly confident at this point," said Mickey Kantor, the U.S. trade representative, who is negotiating with Dole.

The main issue continues to be finding a way for Congress to monitor the new World Trade Organization on a sustained basis and maintaining the threat that the United States could pull out of the agreement if the new group of international arbiters repeatedly rules against American environmental or labor laws, or other regulations for imported goods. …