- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

Texas Gov. George W. Bush yesterday called on Republicans and Democrats in Congress to put aside "posturing and partisanship" and approve a landmark agreement that would expand trade with China. The move came as two key congressional committees gave their support to the deal by unexpectedly large margins.

In a speech at a Boeing aircraft factory in Everett, Wash., the presumptive Republican nominee for president argued that permanent normal trade relations (NTR) for China, and bringing the Asian giant into the World Trade Organization (WTO) would further the economic, political and security interests of the United States.

"For businesses, workers and farmers [NTR] will mean lower trade barriers and enormous opportunities," said Mr. Bush, echoing many of the arguments made by the Clinton administration. "For the people of China, it holds out hope of open contact with the world of freedom."

Mr. Bush's endorsement came as House and Senate panels gave their overwhelming support to permanent NTR for China. The Senate Finance Committee approved the legislation on a 19-1 vote and the House Ways and Means Committee signed off by an unexpectedly large margin of 34-4.

Democrats, the key swing constituency in the House, flocked to support NTR. Reps. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, Lloyd Doggett of Texas, Karen L. Thurman of Florida and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, all previously undecided, backed the measure in advance of the full House vote.

"We're not there yet, but this vote is a little momentum," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, the California Democrat who has led the pro-NTR forces in his party.

The committee also passed additional legislation sponsored by Reps. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, and Doug Bereuter, Nebraska Republican, that would curb sudden surges in Chinese imports if they injure American industries. Several Democrats said their support on the House floor would be contingent on seeing other proposals by Mr. Levin included in the final package.

"The situation still remains fluid, but we do believe we will be successful next week," U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told reporters.

In his speech, Mr. Bush stressed that, if elected president, he would pursue many of the trade measures that have eluded the Clinton administration as the American public has become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of open trade and investment.

Speaking only miles away from Seattle, where violent protests helped derail global trade talks last November, Mr. Bush said he would work to obtain the trade negotiating authority that Congress declined to grant the Clinton administration in 1997 and 1998. And, in a pointed criticism of Mr. Clinton's performance in Seattle, he pledged to restart market-opening talks in the WTO.

"They mishandled the global trade negotiations right here in Seattle," Mr. Bush said. "I will make expanding trade a consistent priority."

The China trade agreement, which Mrs. Barshefsky wrapped up last November in Beijing, represents an enormous opportunity for U.S. exporters, Mr. Bush said.

The deal would pave the way for Chinese membership in the WTO, without the need for the United States to make concessions to China, he added.

"For all these gains, we will not have to change a single sentence of our existing trade rules," Mr. Bush said.

The Texas governor also endorsed a central argument the White House has made in support of the agreement: Trade is a lever that will nudge the Chinese people toward democratic change.

"Economic freedom creates habits of liberty and habits of liberty create expectations of democracy," he said.

But Mr. Bush also drew a distinction between the Clinton administration's overall policy toward China, which has sought a "strategic partnership" with Beijing. In particular, Mr. Bush, who has described China as a "competitor," said his administration would be a stronger supporter of Taiwan.

Mr. Bush stressed that his support for the China trade deal was "not just a matter of commerce but a matter of conviction," and interviews with Bush advisers and business and labor leaders in Texas paint the portrait of an instinctive free trader. Mr. Bush's formative experience has been the commercial benefits that have accrued to Texas in the past six years from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"I think the governor is very strong on trade," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who has demonstrated little patience with politicians in any party who do not support free trade.

NAFTA, which went into effect in 1994, has had a profound impact on Texas, according to state business leaders. In 1997, Mexico accounted for roughly half of the state's $84.3 billion in exports, and the amount of commercial traffic in Texas has exploded in the last six years. Far from engaging in a fundamental debate about whether NAFTA has been good, state officials spend most of their time wrestling with how to manage its effects, both positive and negative.

"NAFTA is not a panacea to solve all our problems, and the governor knows that," said Gerald Schwebel, executive vice president of the Laredo-based International Bank of Commerce.

At the same time, Mr. Bush has had little success in convincing organized labor in Texas that NAFTA is beneficial for workers.

"It's too easy [under NAFTA] to move a factory to Mexico," said Joe Gunn, president of the Texas AFL-CIO.

Partly as a result of NAFTA, Mr. Bush has developed a strong rapport with Mexican officials, including President Ernesto Zedillo, whose inauguration he attended shortly after becoming governor.

Mr. Bush is also surrounded by a coterie of advisers with strong credentials in trade policy. Robert Zoellick, an undersecretary of state from 1989 to 1993, played a major role in the negotiation of NAFTA. Josh Bolton, the campaign's issues director, and Gary Edson, another adviser, were both senior officials in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

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