More undecideds support China trade bill

Posted: Friday, May 19, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) - Supporters of a landmark China trade bill won a handful of converts in the House today and predicted a new Chinese-European trade pact would strengthen their hand.

Both supporters and opponents of the measure stepped up their campaigns in advance of next week's vote.

But backers expressed increasing confidence that they would obtain the 218 votes needed to pass the legislation extending permanent normal trade relations to Beijing.

Still, ``We have an awful lot of work to be done,'' said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the House Rules Committee chairman. He predicted an intense weekend of lobbying directed at the dwindling number of undecideds.

At a news conference, Dreier announced his panel, which sets procedures for House debate, will take up the legislation Tuesday, followed by House debate Wednesday. Dreier said he hopes the debate, despite the intense controversy, will take no more than a day.

Dreier and other China-trade supporters released details of accompanying legislation they intend to incorporate in the bill. One measure would set up a commission to monitor human rights in China. Another would help protect U.S. companies from surges in Chinese imports.

The side agreements were designed to make the bill more palatable to those concerns about China's labor practices and human rights policies.

``This proposal is a hard-fought compromise that should help us in the House pass permanent trade relations with China,'' said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

At the news conference, four members - Democrats John LaFalce of New York, Thomas Sawyer of Ohio and Diana DeGette of Colorado and Republican Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas - said they were switching from ``undecided'' to supporting the bill.

``Closing the door on China will not improve human rights in China. It would be a step back,'' DeGette said.

Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., told reporters that, while he was still officially undecided, he was ``leaning to yes.''

At the same time, opponents announced three new converts to the ``no'' column: Reps. Robert Andrews, D-N.J.; Rod R. Blagojevich, D-Ill.; and Karen McCarthy, D-Mo. Approving the bill ``will expedite the flow of American capital and jobs in the manufacturing sector to China,'' Andrews said.

House Minority Whip David Bonior, D-Mich., who predicts that as many as two-thirds of House Democrats will oppose the measure, told reporters, ``As bad as our trade deficit with China is today, it will grow even worse if we approve a permanent trade deal.''

Although both sides have gained this week from the ranks of previously undecided, proponents have been picking up more.

Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., the top Democratic head counter on the legislation, said that with the new support, ``we are well on our way to reaching the numbers we talked about,'' or 70 to 80 Democrats in support of the bill.

Supporters also praised the announcement that the European Union today had reached agreement with China on a market-opening trade agreement, removing the last obstacle to China's long-sought entry in the 135-member World Trade Organization.

The pact ``is further reason why we need to pass this agreement,'' said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

In a statement, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said the 15-nation European Union and China ``have made some positive additions to the landmark agreement we negotiated last year.''

Under the rules of the World Trade Organization, trade concessions China gives to any one country to gain entry to the WTO must be extended to all other WTO members. But to gain those benefits for American exporters, Congress must grant China permanent normal trade relations, scrapping the annual review.

``If Congress fails to grant PNTR, it will be our workers, businesses and farmers who are left behind while our competitors take full advantage of the benefits the agreement provides,'' Barshefsky said.

Both sides still predicted a close vote, although supporters were increasingly confident they would prevail. President Clinton planned a five-minute Oval Office address to promote the measure Sunday, although not all TV networks planned to carry it live.

Passage of the measure in the more free-trade-minded Senate appears assured. However, a heavy campaign against the bill in the House by organized labor has seriously undercut Democratic support.

The bill would extend permanent normal trade relations to China and ease the way for its entry into the WTO. It would end two decades of annual congressional votes on China's trade status.

Opponents of the trade bill condemn China's human rights abuses and suggest that increasing trade with China could cost American jobs by flooding U.S. markets with low-cost goods. Supporters say it will open China's vast markets to American companies and help promote American values there.

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