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Bush Mulls Options On Steel

The administration is considering ways to soften the blow to the domestic steel industry if President Bush lifts steep tariffs on foreign steel, administration and industry officials said Wednesday.

The president had a meeting late Tuesday night in the Oval Office with Vice President Dick Cheney, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and various White House economic aides to ponder his options, said administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The World Trade Organization has ruled the U.S. tariffs illegal.

While the president has not made a final decision to remove the tariffs he imposed in March 2002, officials in the steel industry said that it was their understanding that this was the recommendation he was receiving from his economic advisers.

If the tariffs are lifted, these steel industry officials said various options were being considered by the administration to demonstrate a continued commitment to helping an industry which has seen a string of bankruptcies and thousands of job layoffs.

The options being mentioned include retaining an early-warning notification system that would give the government better capabilities for detecting possible surges in foreign steel shipments into the country. This system, which was put in place when the president first imposed the tariffs, requires importers to notify the government when they place orders for foreign steel.

The steel industry officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the administration was likely to pledge to continue international talks aimed at reducing excess global steel capacity and reining in subsidies that foreign governments provide for their domestic steel companies.

These talks have been under way since 2002, with the latest round of discussions on the subsidy issue taking place this week in Paris. So far, the talks have yielded no breakthroughs in either reducing excess capacity or limiting government subsidies, but some trade experts said if the administration lifts the tariffs it may prod foreign governments to be more forthcoming at the bargaining table.

Another administration official, who also spoke on conditions barring use of his name, said that White House aides have their "ducks in a row" to quickly inform industry officials, members of Congress and other interested parties, when Mr. Bush makes his final decision.

That decision could come as early as Thursday, this official said.

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