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Deadlock over Pentagon role holds up passage of bill regulating exports

The Capitol Hill manifestation of a year-long turf battle in Washington between the Defense and the Commerce Departments could result in the demise, for this session of Congress, of a key trade-regulation bill.

At issue is whether the Pentagon should be given a stronger role in helping the Department of Commerce monitor the export of high-technology products.

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As both houses of Congress struggled to conclude action on key bills so they could adjourn by week's end, a House-Senate conference committee working on the export control bill appeared deadlocked Thursday. Senate conferees, headed by Jake Garn (R) of Utah, were standing firm in favor of beefing up the Pentagon's role. House members, headed by Rep. Don Bonker (D) of Washington, were holding out against it.

The wider authority would permit Defense Department officials to review export-license applications not only to communist-bloc nations, but also to Western nations. At present the Commerce Department has primary licensing authority for so-called West-West exports. The Pentagon only has authority to review license applications for strategic goods bound for communist-bloc nations.

Commerce is opposed to the idea of sharing its authority with Defense officials, who in the past have accused Commerce of being ineffective in halting what has been called the ''massive'' illicit flow of Western technology and know-how to Soviet-bloc nations.

There has been concern among House members, Commerce officials, and industry executives that increased Pentagon authority would complicate the licensing process and lead to costly delays for US firms doing business overseas. American businessmen complain that licensing delays put their firms at a competitive disadvantage with Japanese and European competitors who can promise faster delivery to customers in international markets.

The Pentagon issue is the only remaining unresolved portion of a possible joint House-Senate export control bill that has been seven months in the making. It is part of a major revision of the Export Administration Act of 1979, which is aimed in part at preventing the smuggling of strategic US high-tech goods to Soviet- and East-bloc nations for possible use in Soviet weapons systems.

The act regulates US exports to both communist and free-world destinations for reasons of national security, foreign policy, or short supply.

According to staff aides, if the Pentagon issue is not resolved, the existing 1979 act is expected to be extended. The House and Senate would then face many of the same issues next year in a repeat attempt to update the act, observers say.

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The conference committee, which has been debating aspects of the bill since last spring, has already reached agreement on a broad range of amendments to the existing bill.

Earlier this week, the conferees endorsed a House-sponsored provision that outlaws new US bank loans to the South African government or its agencies. In addition, it mandates that US firms operating in South Africa abide by fair-employment, antidiscrimination policies.

While there are an estimated $4.2 billion in current loans from US banks to South Africa, only some $388 million of the loans are to South African government entities.

If enacted, the measure will mark the first time US financial sanctions have been levied against South Africa, although a number of trade restrictions already are being enforced.

Roughly 330 American firms, employing some 127,000 workers, do business in South Africa.

The conferees also approved a provision that would make it more difficult for a US president to cancel existing overseas contracts of US companies because of the administration's foreign policy goals.

That issue arose as a result of the controversy surrounding the administration's embargo of US equipment for the Soviet gas pipeline in 1982.

The provision, known as ''contract sanctity,'' does not bar a president from canceling private-sector contracts, but it requires him to use emergency powers to do so.

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