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Despite noise over trade, Congress unlikely to enact tough curbs

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Members of Congress angered by Japan's trade policies are once again stamping their feet, waving their hands, and rattling the sword of protectionism. But it's unlikely that Congress will actually draw its blade and enact tough trade legislation. The ''domestic content'' bill passed by the House last week is decidedly unpopular in the Senate. Other major trade bills face a similar uncertain future.

For the moment, however, the noise level is high. Domestic content is easily the most controversial proposed trade law to receive serious attention in many years.

The bill requires that most cars sold in the United States be built with high percentages of US labor and parts. If passed, the bill would force behemoth Japanese automakers such as Toyota to build more plants here, or lose access to the US market.

Supporters of domestic content say it's needed to protect the US auto industry from the Japanese onslaught. Opponents say it's a nasty bit of protectionism that will raise the cost of cars and hurt US workers with export-oriented jobs.

A toothless domestic-content bill passed the House last year. This year the bill had the added support of 19 freshmen representatives, who received strong United Auto Workers (UAW) backing in their 1982 campaigns. A full-strength version passed 219 to 199 - though Japan announced last week that it would extend its voluntary auto-export quotas.

At this point, however, domestic content may be more symbol than substance. Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D) of New York and other supporters say they won't even try to get the bill through the Senate until next year, when an upcoming election might compel wavering senators to vote for the measure.

Many House members might not even have voted for the bill if they thought there was a chance it could become law. Rep. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana, who tried to weaken the bill on the House floor, said many colleagues privately told him he was right - then voted for passage, to please the UAW.

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