China trade bill wins OK of key panels in Congress

Safeguards added for rights reviews, domestic producers

Approval still uncertain

May 18, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Clinton's campaign to open up China's huge market to U.S. goods gained a big boost yesterday, when two key committees gave overwhelming approval to legislation that would normalize trade relations with Beijing.

In the House, several wavering Democrats threw their crucial support behind the measure after Republican leaders agreed to provisions that would require close monitoring of Beijing's human rights record and protect U.S. markets against surges of Chinese goods.

The legislation would grant to China the same permanent normal trading privileges that the United States extends to most other nations. Now, Congress must renew Beijing's trade status each year, a process that gives opponents a chance to air grievances about its trading practices and human rights violations.

The side agreements - creating a commission to oversee human rights and strengthening safeguards to protect the United States from being flooded by cheap imports - brightened prospects that the bill would win approval by the full House next week, and final enactment by early summer.

Support for the measure in the Senate - where the Finance Committee passed the bill with one dissent - has long been considered assured. But in the House, a majority of Democrats, backed by organized labor, are fiercely resisting the proposal, arguing that the measure would cost U.S. jobs and overlook Chinese labor and rights violations. The vote is considered so close that the Republican whip, Rep. Tom DeLay, predicted that political "hand-to-hand combat" would be required to win it."The situation still remains fluid, but we do believe we will be successful," U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told reporters.

The legislation is needed to fully open lucrative Chinese markets to U.S. goods, services and agricultural products.

Beijing agreed to drop many of its trade barriers in order to join the World Trade Organization. But the United States would not be able to benefit from those concessions unless it granted permanent normal trade status to China.

Cardin's concerns

Among the lawmakers whose backing for the bill was at least tentatively secured yesterday was Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who had raised several concerns about trade and human rights violations that supporters of the measure scrambled to address.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to maximize his leverage, Cardin announced his decision hours before voting with the 34-to-4 majority to support the bill in the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday.

"I'm still fragile on this," Cardin stressed, noting that his vote for the bill in the full House next week is conditioned on Republican leaders and administration officials making good on their promises.

House Republican leaders agreed yesterday to attach to the trade bill a companion measure sponsored by Reps. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Doug Bereuter, a Nebraska Republican.

This provision would set up a commission to monitor human rights in China and recommend sanctions in cases of abuses.

The side bill also calls for an annual review of China's trade performance within the Geneva-based WTO.

Further, it urges that Taiwan be admitted to the WTO immediately after China.

Preventing surges

Also crucial to Cardin and some other House Democrats was an amendment added yesterday that would strengthen safeguards against surges of Chinese goods imported to the United States. Beijing agreed to comply with a tougher standard for determining what constitutes a "surge" than the standard that applies to other nations, Barshefsky told the Ways and Means Committee yesterday.

Cardin, who has expressed particular concern about how steel imports have hurt the Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant at Sparrows Point, said the decisive factor in his decision yesterday was a promise from Commerce Secretary William M. Daley. Daley phoned Cardin and pledged to reopen investigation of earlier allegations of steel dumping that the congressman says were not properly handled, to the disadvantage of Bethlehem.

Opponents of the trade bill dismissed the side agreements, particularly the Levin-Bereuter proposal, as fig leaves to provide political cover for lawmakers who want to support the business community without incurring the anger of organized labor.

"What is needed is increased pressure" on China to curb human rights and other abuses, the watchdog group Public Citizen said yesterday. "But instead under discussion are a new commission with no enforcement capacity, repeating studies already required and amendments to U.S. trade law to reiterate Chinese commitments on surge protection and dumping that already will be part of China's binding" terms for WTO entry.

Dissenting vote

Concern about Chinese human rights abuses prompted the one dissenting vote on the trade bill yesterday in the Senate Finance Committee, cast by Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican.

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