Shock! The President Flashes His Principles

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Is Bill Clinton having an attack of high moral fiber? "I've never seen the administration fighting so hard as they are on this," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., before he watched his steel-import quota bill come up three votes short on a procedural vote that would have boosted its chance of passing. Clinton the economist is fighting the quotas –- meant to protect U.S. steelmakers from lower-priced foreign steel –- on compelling grounds: They would almost certainly be a violation of current U.S. trade treaties. And at a time when Clinton pounds the world’s podiums calling for globalization and freer trade (meaning more U.S. products in foreign markets), the last thing the U.S. needs is to fire the first shot in the next trade war.

But there’s a good reason why Clinton the politician (a far more familiar incarnation) is letting Commerce Secretary Bill Daley do the haranguing, and why he's trying to kill the bill without a well-publicized veto: Al Gore. "Clinton has to be careful about this," says TIME senior economics reporter Bernard Baumohl. "The steel unions are very powerful, and they really want these quotas. Gore –- and Hillary too –- is counting on union support to win, and Clinton’s opposition is going to make them angry." It already has. The United Steelworkers of America arranged to have steelworkers descend on the Capitol today for a rally, reminding lawmakers (and law-vetoers) that global trade can affect votes. Will the Senate put West Virginia before world affairs, and pass the quota bill (it passed the House overwhelmingly in March)? Or will the Man of Steel (formerly the Man of Jell-O) prevail in his fight for –- gasp –- what he thinks is right? So far, so good.