Ehrlich breaking with GOP on China trade bill

Md. Republican worries it would provide access to sensitive material

May 24, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County is young and ambitious, with visions of the governor's mansion beckoning in the distance.

In just five years on Capitol Hill, Ehrlich has advanced quickly through the ranks of House Republicans, partly on the strength of his ability to push pro-business policies with a friendly demeanor that doesn't tend to alienate union voters.

Yet Ehrlich plans to vote today against the China trade bill, which most Republican leaders and business groups consider their chief legislative priority this year.

"It's a very difficult policy call for me," Ehrlich said in an interview. "From a pure trade viewpoint, this is a winner."

Ehrlich will vote against the bill, he said, not for the reasons given by most of its opponents: China's human rights violations and unfair trade practices. Rather, the congressman said, he worries that the trade bill would give the Chinese military too much access to U.S. dollars and technology.

`Pretty chilling picture'

Ehrlich said the Chinese government's "aggressive, militaristic approach of the last few years, particularly toward Taiwan," has heightened his apprehension about increased trade of sensitive material with China. He and other members of Congress have raised fears that China has improperly converted U.S. civilian computer technology for military use.

"It all adds up to a pretty chilling picture," Ehrlich said.

The measure would permanently confer on China the same trade status granted to other U.S. trading partners. Currently, Beijing's status is reviewed annually, a process that gives its congressional critics a chance to air their grievances about China's trading and human rights record.

The bill's passage would also ensure that the United States benefits from concessions that China made to U.S. negotiators in its quest to join the World Trade Organization, which regulates international commerce. Those concessions include reduced tariffs and fewer restrictions on sales of American goods in China.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas - two Ehrlich mentors in Washington - have put the passage of this bill at the top of their agenda, creating an unusual alliance with President Clinton. Supporters say they expect to gain the votes of at least 150 Republicans and 70 Democrats, providing a slim margin of victory in the 435-member House. As many as 70 Republicans might vote against the bill. Although he has consistently voted against approving normal trade with China in the yearly votes, Ehrlich has disappointed some of his allies in the business community with his stance.

"It's an isolationist position that ultimately doesn't work very well," said Bill Miller, political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest federation of businesses and industry groups. European and Japanese companies would happily take the place of American firms, Miller said.

Miller's organization and other industry groups routinely give Ehrlich grades in the 80s to 90s (out of 100) for his votes on major legislation. But on this bill, Ehrlich finds himself coupled with the unions that give him dismal ratings.

Asked about Ehrlich's opposition to the measure, Horace P. Alston, president of the Baltimore Council of the International Longshoremen Association, said, "That surprised me."

Even though the bill could produce more work for members of Alston's union, he said he opposed it because of the prospect of lost jobs elsewhere in the country.

"It clearly goes to show that Bob does not take knee-jerk positions on issues," said Richard D. Bennett, chairman of the state Republican Party. "His position would be supported by many conservative Democratic union members."

Pressure from both sides

Pressure has been stepped up on both sides. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce paid for televised ads against Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, a leading Republican opponent of the trade bill, saying that Ney is "turning his back on the working families of Ohio." Remarkably, the ads appeared less than two months after the Chamber had endorsed Ney for re-election this fall.

Unlike Ney, Ehrlich is not being vocal about his opposition. While he has quietly told colleagues of his position, he is not soliciting votes to defeat the trade bill.

Ehrlich's district encompasses northern and eastern Baltimore County, Harford County and a slice of Anne Arundel County. While many corporations with international interests do business in and around Baltimore County, the prospect of accelerated global trade unsettles those in some older industries, such as the steel mills.

But among leading Republicans in Washington, Ehrlich's position stands out. He is a deputy whip in DeLay's power structure. Ehrlich is also a vice chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, the fund-raising arm of the party for House members.

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