Decision expected from Bush on steel tariffs
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WASHINGTON -- The steel industry is bracing for word from the White House, possibly today, that President Bush has finally decided to remove some of the controversial tariffs on imported steel that he imposed 21 months ago and that the World Trade Organization has ruled illegal.
Steel industry officials said they had received unofficial that the decision would be sweetened, but that, as of last night, they did not yet know exactly how.
When Bush made the decision to impose tariffs in March 2002, final details were still being worked out the night before and were not wrapped up until the morning of the announcement. Bush's economic team, which did not want high tariffs, sparred with his political team, which did. That same debate has been reborn this week.
After discussions earlier this week with the White House, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said he expected to hear that some tariffs were being lifted. But as of early last evening, the White House had not called to alert him to Bush's decision, as would be customary.
A congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the White House was calling key lawmakers on the steel issue and asking them to return to Washington today.
A White House official said Bush has been deliberating over what to do for weeks, and that the announcement was almost certain to be this week. Others said last night that they had heard it might come today, but that could quickly change if final details on how to best present the decision haven't been worked out.
Bush held a late-night meeting Tuesday in the Oval Office with Vice President Dick Cheney, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick after returning from a fund-raising trip to Pittsburgh where he encountered last-minute lobbying from the steel industry, the AP reported.
When his original announcement regarding the tariffs was made, no one was happy.
The domestic industry had demanded tariffs of 40 percent on all foreign steel. Bush exempted NAFTA members and about 80 developing countries. Steel makers also wanted the federal government to pay for billions of dollars in health care bills for 600,000 steel retirees, which did not happen.
For weeks now, administration officials have been searching for ways to mollify domestic steel producers.
Santorum praised Bush for imposing the March 2002 tariffs, which were supposed to last for three years.
"I think the president deserves a lot of credit no matter what happens," Santorum said. "Nevertheless, I anticipate that some of the tariffs will be lifted."
But Santorum emphasized that some consideration would still be given to the industry. "It's my expectation that the administration will carefully examine where some of the tariffs are causing more harm than good and other areas where they're still needed," Santorum said.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., personally lobbied Bush, urging that he not lift the tariffs, when the president visited Pittsburgh for a campaign fund-raiser Tuesday.
"More time [for the tariffs to be in place] would enable them to do more," Specter said. "It's already been very helpful," and that "suggests that we ought to stay the course" for 15 more months.
Bush has been between a rock and a hard place on the steel issue. According to polls, the tariffs are extremely popular in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, which have 46 electoral votes he is seeking in his bid for re-election.
On the other hand, the European Union is furious with the United States for making European steel as much as 30 percent more expensive for U.S. buyers and has threatened to impose $2.2 billion worth of tariffs on U.S. goods and services starting this month if the duties on their steel aren't lifted.
Also, Bush has come under intense pressure from free-trade conservatives in his own party to lift the tariffs. Santorum conceded earlier this week that the tariffs aren't popular in the Senate, where he is the No. 3 GOP leader.
If Bush eliminates the tariffs, Republican lawmakers who support them will have a dilemma. They want the tariffs left in place but don't want to attack the president. A spokesman for Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, said she would be disappointed if the tariffs were lifted but would not criticize the president.
First Published December 4, 2003 12:00 am