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Tuesday, 5 June, 2001, 21:33 GMT 22:33 UK
Bush seeks steel probe
George W Bush
President Bush outlines his plans for steel
By BBC News Online's North America Business Reporter, David Schepp

US President George Bush has ordered an investigation into steel imports that could lead to the imposition of trade barriers.

In what is being viewed as an overture to Congressional Democrats, President Bush has asked the International Trade Commission to investigate whether restrictions on steel imports are needed to aid the domestic industry.

This is a major victory for our steelworkers, steel companies, local communities and way of life

Ohio Congressman Bob Ney

The US steel industry has been flagging in recent years and has called upon the government to look into the issue of cheap imports.

US steel companies and workers blame unfair trade practices for a bevy of steel plant closures that have hit the industry since 1998.

Unfair trade practices

"We're concerned about unfair trade practices that may be affecting the economics of the steel industry," Mr Bush said during a press conference.

"Therefore [I] call upon the International Trade Commission under Section 201 to have a full investigation of the industry, of the imports coming into the United States, to make sure that our industry is not being affected by unfair trade practices," he said.

The US steel industry has been hit by cheap imports
The US steel industry has been hit by cheap imports
The International Trade Commission is an agency of the US government that oversees import protections.

Under Section 201, a provision that allows the agency to restrict imports until it can evaluate the damage being done to the steel industry, the Bush administration could limit steel imports for up to 4 years.

Steel industry officials unsuccessfully lobbied former President Bill Clinton for such an investigation before he left office.

Those pleas fell on deaf ears during the Clinton administration, which feared being seen as protectionist among its trading partners - despite the Democratic party's traditionally strong ties to union labour and factory towns.

It was an issue that Vice President Dick Cheney made a campaign issue when he was running for office.

Speaking then to steel workers in Weirton, West Virginia, a small steel town in the Ohio River valley, Mr Cheney said a Bush administration would enforce trade laws.

"There will be no more looking the other way," he said.

One Congressional Republican hailed the Tuesday's move by Mr Bush.

"This is a major victory for our steelworkers, steel companies, local communities and way of life," said Representative Bob Ney of Ohio in a statement.

Industry leaders, too, hailed the move.

"Today, President Bush has kept a promise that his administration made to steelworkers in the Ohio Valley," said Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel President James Bradley.

"I want to thank President Bush for listening and doing the right thing," Mr Bradley said in a written statement.

Politics, politics

Mr Bush's decision was seen in some quarters as a response to Senate Democrats recent wresting of control of the Senate from the Republicans following the defection of Vermont Senator James Jeffords.

In response to the president's decision, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat, said Mr Bush's decision "was long over, but very welcome."

Within Washington, others view Mr Bush's call for an investigation into steel import trade practices as a sign of his willingness to work with Democrats to assure his own need for fast-track trade authority.

"Trade-promotion authority", as the administration likes to call it, would permit the president to make trade deals with other countries with a simple up or down vote by the Congress.

In recent years, lawmakers have been resistant to granting such trade authority to the president fearing trade deals would come at the expense of the environment and workers.

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