PITTSBURGH -- Facing a politically tough decision on steel tariffs, President Bush came to the heart of steel country yesterday and encountered last-minute lobbying from high-profile backers of the sanctions that have helped prop up the US industry for 20 months.
Bush traveled to "Steel City" to raise campaign cash at an event that offered, for $2,000 apiece, a standing-only buffet lunch. The 2 1/2-hour visit earned $850,000 for his reelection effort.
"We have done a lot for the people, but our work is only beginning," Bush told his audience, outlining his agenda for the war on terror, the economy, and energy exploration.
It was Bush's 23d visit as president to Pennsylvania, a state he lost in the 2000 election; it is critical to his reelection strategy. "We're laying the foundation for what is going to be a victory in Pennsylvania in 2004," he said.
White House advisers are urging Bush to abandon tariffs imposed last year on imported steel, which were meant to give the troubled US industry three years to consolidate and regain a profitable footing. Spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had not yet made a decision but would announce one "in due course."
Arriving at the fund-raiser, Bush was buttonholed by Thomas J. Usher, who helped organize the event but who also, as chairman and CEO of industry leader US Steel Corp., is a strong advocate of the tariffs.
Usher urged Bush to "keep his commitment to the steel industry" and keep the tariffs in place, US Steel spokesman John Armstrong said.
Bush responded that "it's a difficult and complex issue" on which he has not yet ruled, Armstrong said.
Outside the downtown hotel, about 300 steelworkers and other protesters bundled themselves against snow flurries and brisk winds, but out of sight of the president's motorcade, to demonstrate against Bush's visit.
"You don't save the steel industry by caving into the blackmail from Europe half way through what you promised," said Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America, a constituency Bush has courted.
The decision presents Bush with potentially significant benefits and costs to his reelection chances, regardless of which way he goes.
Keeping the tariffs would please the steel industry, which argues the American market will again be flooded with low-priced foreign steel without them. Those companies are dominant in states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Bush won West Virginia and Ohio in 2000; all three are considered important to a winning electoral map next year.
However, that choice could trigger retaliatory tariffs from the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and China against US products.
Bush used his trip to do a little campaigning for Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is up for reelection next year and facing a bruising primary fight. Specter, who caught a ride with Bush on Air Force One, got the classic candidate treatment -- an appearance at Bush's side from the top of the jet's stairs.
Specter urged Bush to keep the tariffs, as did AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who in a letter to the president yesterday said the tariffs had contributed to the recovery and stabilization of the steel industry.
"Steelworkers and steel companies are doing what you asked them to do in 2002 -- make painful decisions to increase their competitiveness," Sweeney wrote. "Now is not the time to pull the rug from under their feet, setting back these efforts that have been so far successful."