China trade bill puts pressure on Cardin

Md. lawmaker hears from all sides as House nears vote

May 15, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the vote nears in the House on a major China trade bill, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin is one of the most prominent lawmakers still wavering.

His indecision has allowed pressure to build from allies on all sides of the issue - from his wife, Myrna, to constituents on the street, to labor union officials, to corporate executives, to his congressional colleagues, to President Clinton himself. "People don't fully understand the impact of China," said the Baltimore Democrat. "I think there is a lot of anxiety about international trade. They know trade is important for the economy, but they worry that their jobs could be threatened."

Cardin doesn't have much time to announce his position: The measure comes up for a vote Wednesday in the House Ways and Means Committee, on which he serves. But he said he might not decide until he sees exactly what the bill says.

The measure would confer on China the same sort of permanent, normal trade status granted to other American trading partners. Currently, China's status is reviewed annually, which provides that country's critics a chance to raise charges of human rights violations and unfair trading practices.

But the pending trade measure has greater implications. China is expected to be granted entry to the World Trade Organization on terms negotiated by the United States, which successfully sought lower Chinese tariffs and greater opportunities for American firms operating there. China would not have to abide by those terms if the measure doesn't pass.

Cardin said he supports China's entry into the WTO, which regulates international trade. But he said the United States has been ineffective in forcing other countries to observe international standards of conduct. In particular, he pointed to what he said were widespread Chinese human rights violations and illegal importing of cheap steel by China and other countries last year.

Labor unions, a deep well of support for Cardin throughout his career, have mounted an unusually intense, nationwide campaign against the China trade measure. They contend that surges in cheap imports have cost U.S. jobs.

Labor leaders, including John J. Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, have been vocal about the unions' objections in private conversations with Cardin. Other lawmakers have been targeted for letter-writing campaigns and public demonstrations, urging them to vote against the trade bill. "The U.S. has traditionally been the most open market in the world, and the most naive about other countries' conduct," Cardin said. "We have been very reluctant to do anything about it."

Cardin portrays himself not as an agonizing Hamlet but a pragmatic dealmaker. The 3rd District congressman said he hopes to wrest greater protections from White House officials for human rights and the environment in China and for jobs here.

House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri - to whom Cardin is close - opposes the bill because he does not believe the administration can provide adequate safeguards.

But to address human rights concerns, Cardin backs a proposal from Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat, to create a commission to monitor repression in China. While Clinton backs the Levin proposal, some Republicans, who would provide the bulk of votes if the bill passes, are wary of any such amendments.

The Clinton administration has made winning passage of the bill a priority. The president needs to attract 60 to 85 House Democrats if his position is to prevail.

As a result, Cardin has received personal appeals from Clinton at the White House, as well as frequent calls from administration officials. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger trekked to the lawmaker's Capitol Hill offices to make their pitch. "The more we talk about it, the stronger our case becomes," said an administration official. In coming days, there will be lots of meetings between undecided House members and the president. "The Cabinet is obviously going to do a full-court press," he added.

But Cardin said he had been swayed less by the personal touch than by the weight of arguments. Clinton and Berger, Cardin said, led him to recognize that rejection of the bill could lead to an angry response from the Chinese government, and subsequently destabilize relations between China and Taiwan.

The arguments of the White House also have been advanced by corporate interests that pin hopes for major financial gains in the China market.

Cardin has only voted once for approving standard trading status for China during the annual votes. But he acknowledges that the trade measure could be a boon for businesses in Baltimore. "If Congress does not grant [permanent trade status], China could continue to block American companies while lowering barriers to other markets," said Jeanne de Cervens of the AEGON insurance group, who recently lobbied Cardin on the issue.

Her firm, the American unit of a Dutch company, employs 800 people in Baltimore.

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