- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2000

The White House yesterday marshaled a contingent of former presidents, Cabinet officials and members of Congress in its bid to win lawmakers' approval of a landmark trade agreement with China.

In an effort to highlight the broad support for the agreement among Republicans and Democrats who have shepherded American foreign policy over the past 30 years, former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, along with former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, urged Congress to pass permanent normal trade relations (NTR) with China.

"I am convinced that a vote for [permanent NTR] significantly advances America's economic, strategic and security interests," Mr. Ford told nearly 100 dignitaries in the East Room of the White House.

The group included officials ranging from Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent, to the 97-year-old Mike Mansfield, a former Democratic Senate majority leader and ambassador to Japan.

Vice President Al Gore, for whom trade with China has been a thorny political issue complicating his presidential bid, made a strong plea for permanent normal trade relations. While the issue divides him from labor unions, a core Democratic constituency, Mr. Gore did not pull any punches in his endorsement of the trade deal, and China's membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"It is right for American jobs. It is right for the cause of reform in China. And I believe it will move us closer to the strong and stable world community that we seek to create," Mr. Gore said.

President Clinton, noting that pro-NTR forces face a fight to win a vote in the House the week of May 22, urged the assembled luminaries to call on undecided members and ask them to support the China trade agreement.

"[W]e want the voice of this meeting to echo across the country, and to embrace the Congress," Mr. Clinton said.

Attempting to rise above the bitter rhetoric on both sides of the China debate, the former presidents outlined arguments in favor of permanent NTR for China that spoke directly to members of their own parties.

Mr. Ford, mindful that the pro-NTR forces consist of an uneasy alliance between Republican congressional leaders and the Democratic White House, emphasized that successes in international economic policy have always rested on cooperation between the two parties.

"Historically, in the past half-century, trade legislation has been a bipartisan policy, where the executive and legislative branches, Democrat and Republican, worked side-by-side," Mr. Ford said.

Former President George Bush has also endorsed permanent NTR for China, but was not able to attend the White House gathering because of scheduling conflicts, according to Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart.

In a nod to Democrats worried by labor's opposition to the China trade deal, Mr. Carter recalled that he had enlisted Leonard Woodcock to negotiate the first U.S. trade agreement with China in 1979. Mr. Woodcock, a longtime leader of the labor movement, has come out in support of permanent NTR for China.

Mr. Carter also spoke of his work with the Atlanta-based Carter Center in encouraging embryonic efforts to democratize China at the grass roots. Many Democrats in Congress are skeptical that U.S. policy has been effective in promoting self-government in China.

But the Carter Center has helped monitor elections in many of China's 900,000 villages, in which about half the candidates do not belong to the Communist Party, Mr. Carter noted.

"If the village elections are successful, which so far they are, then there's a chance at least for more democracy in China," he said.

The pep rally for permanent NTR was part of an effort by the White House to saturate undecided members of Congress with a pro-NTR message in the weeks before the House vote. It also released letters endorsing the China trade deal from the National Conference of Black Mayors and 171 Democrats who hold state and local offices throughout the country.

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