NATION Panel studies remedies for steel

U.S. steelmakers contend they are having trouble paying retirement benefits.
WASHINGTON -- How to heal the ailing U.S. steel industry? That's the question now before the International Trade Commission.
Testimony began Tuesday about what action the ITC should advise President Bush to take -- perhaps including tariffs and other import restrictions -- to aid steelmakers across the country that have been decimated, largely because of a flood of inexpensive imports, the independent trade panel determined last month.
Rep. Ralph Regula, a Canton-area Republican, urged the ITC to issue the & quot;strongest possible remedies & quot; to prevent further erosion of the industry and trigger its recovery.
American steelmakers have charged for years that foreign rivals have been selling excess steel in the United States for less than it costs to produce it, a tactic called dumping.
Twenty-five companies across the country -- including Cleveland-based LTV Corp. -- have filed for bankruptcy protection, and more than 27,000 steel workers have lost their jobs since the Asian economic crisis of 1997 triggered a deluge of cheap imports into the United States.
What companies want: A coalition of steelmakers, including LTV, is calling for a stiff 40 percent tariff on imported steel products with a minimum duty of $100 per ton.
Prices have fallen so drastically, however, that even that high tariff & quot;does not bring us back to the 20-year average price for steel, & quot; warned Scott Salmon, governmental affairs manager for steel giant USX Corp.
Under the steelmakers' request, money raised from tariffs would go to the companies themselves -- instead of government coffers -- to help cover pensions and health insurance benefits for retirees, a financially crushing obligation for many firms.
In exchange for that money, the companies would have to consolidate and restructure operations to become more competitive with foreign steelmakers.
Union's request: The United Steelworkers of America union is asking for the maximum 50 percent tariff on foreign steel products, and quotas limiting imports to their average level between 1994 and 1997.
Attorneys representing foreign steelmakers and domestic steel-using companies argued against tariffs or quotas and in favor of direct financial aid for U.S. steelmakers and an international agreement to reduce excess steel production.
The ITC is scheduled to hear more testimony on the issue Thursday and Friday. The panel will vote on possible remedies Dec. 7 and must forward its recommendations to President Bush by Dec. 19.
Bush, who initiated the ITC's investigation in June, will then have up to two months to decide which of the remedies, if any, to put into place.
Under that timetable, aid for the troubled American steel industry would come no later than Feb. 19 and the trade assistance could be in place for up to four years.

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