House OKs China trade

After much lobbying, smooth vote to make status permanent

Senate approval expected

Economic promise overcomes concerns about rights, jobs

May 25, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After a rare but effective collaboration between President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders, the House voted with surprising ease yesterday to grant China permanent normal trade relations.

The 237-197 vote sent the trade bill on to what is expected to be speedy approval in the Senate. It concluded the year's most contentious debate with a victory that Clinton viewed as perhaps his last chance to add luster to his legacy before he leaves office.

"I have always believed that by opening markets abroad, we open opportunities at home, and we have worked hard to advance that goal," the president said afterward.

"This is a good day for America. And 10 years from now, we will look back on this day and be glad we did this."

Clinton unleashed the full power of his office, including a wide array of favors, to win the votes of 73 House Democrats.

They backed the bill despite the vociferous opposition of their top leaders, Reps. Richard A. Gephardt and David E. Bonior, and such key Democratic constituencies as organized labor.

The vast majority of support came from Republicans - 164 of them - representing the cause of farmers, bankers, Main Street business leaders and high-tech entrepreneurs who are eager to gain low-tariff access to China's enormous markets of consumers.

Republican leaders and the leaders of the nation's largest corporations joined forces in a tightly organized, richly financed campaign to acquaint lawmakers with potential economic benefits to their districts.

"The Chinese market is opening, and someone is going to have the opportunity to sell to those new markets," House Speaker Dennis Hastert told his colleagues just before the votes were cast.

"The question is, who will be there when the door opens? The potential for American economic growth is huge."

Opponents, who fought their uphill battle until the last moments, continued to argue that China has such a deplorable record on human rights, labor rights and environmental protection, as well as trade, that it does not deserve the same trading privileges that the United States grants to most other nations.

"Chinese workers can't even afford to buy the products they make themselves," Bonior told the House. "How are they going to buy our cars or our computers?

"While trade may make a few investors wealthy, it is democracy that makes a nation prosperous."

Voting against the measure were 138 Democrats, 57 Republicans and the two independents in the House.

Like much of the House, the Maryland delegation was deeply divided.

Reps. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, both Republicans, voted for the measure, along with Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, both Democrats.

Voting against the bill were two Republicans - Reps. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland - and two Democrats - Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County.

The bill approved by the House would end the current policy of requiring annual congressional approval of China's trading rights.

The Clinton administration agreed to normalize trade relations on a permanent basis in return for Beijing's agreement to lower its trade barriers, such as tariffs and licensing requirements, as a condition of its entry into the World Trade Organization.

Opponents of the trade measure contended that, besides robbing the United States of jobs and overlooking Beijing's abuse of human rights, the bill would surrender America's ability to cut off trade with China in protest of its government policies.

Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat, called the measure "a terrible giveaway of our leverage to make China do the right things."

Rep. Tony P. Hall, a Democrat from Ohio, said, "This legislation is a dog, and it smells and it deserves to be voted down."

But Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat who won approval for an amendment to the bill that would establish a commission to monitor human rights in China, observed that Congress has never used the leverage it had through the annual review process.

Instead, lawmakers have voted each year to approve normal trade relations with Beijing. Normal trade wasn't interrupted even after Beijing violently repressed the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Ultimately, Levin joined the White House team in lobbying the handful of undecided members to back the bill.

Among them was Rep. Julia Carson, an Indiana Democrat who was inclined to vote against the bill because of her concern about Chinese human rights violations.

But Carson spent 40 minutes yesterday morning at the White House, where the president applied his persuasive powers.

A couple of hours later, Levin pulled Carson aside in a House corridor for some additional lobbying.

Asking how she was bearing up under such a working-over, Carson made a face of abject misery and groaned.

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