WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to support President Bush's imposition of substantial tariffs on cheap imported steel, which has flooded the United States since 1998 and severely damaged the domestic industry.
The political sensitivity of the issue, which involves such election battleground states as Pennsylvania and Ohio, was reflected in a decision by House Republican leaders to hold the decisive vote on a parliamentary question instead of directly on a measure disapproving Bush's action.
The vote was 386-30 in favor of a rule that effectively killed the disapproval resolution.
"Let our trading partners know we stand for fair trade," said Rep. Phil English, R-Pa.
Yet even proponents of the imported steel tariffs, such as Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., called the vote a "procedural smokescreen" designed to protect lawmakers in some difficult re-election campaigns from having to answer for a tough economic vote.
"The American people deserve to know who supports the president's actions on the steel industry and who does not," McGovern said.
The resolution, sponsored by Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., would have substituted Bush's tariffs of up to 30 percent with lower tariffs recommended by the International Trade Commission to address imports of cheaper, heavily subsidized foreign steel.
Jefferson, who represents the port city of New Orleans, said Bush's decision was "not justifiable on any economic ground" and would cost jobs in maritime-related industries.
An ally, Rep. David Vitter, R-La., said 40 percent of the imports arriving in New Orleans are connected to steel imports. Domestic steel, he said, "isn't the only place jobs are impacted by this action."
Tariff opponents also said they would raise prices on products that use steel such as automobiles, increase tensions with U.S. trading partners and threaten U.S. standing before the World Trade Organization.
But the domestic steel industry, its unions and related industries such as iron and coal mining all favored Bush's hefty tariffs and the House went along.
"The president acted appropriately," said Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind. "We ought not to set the president's program back."