- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Organized labor will bring an estimated 10,000 people to Capitol Hill today to protest expanded trade with China, but an important group of Democrats is not rushing to embrace this traditional constituency.

The business-friendly New Democrats, a group President Clinton helped form in the late 1980s, is opposing organized labor in the battle over permanent normal trade relations (NTR) with China, even in a year when many Democrats would rather work with labor to win a majority in the House.

"There's always been a nervous relationship between New Democrats and labor," said Dave McCurdy, a former member of Congress who was one of the first Democrats to insist that the only viable party was a centrist party.

U.S. Capitol police said they are expecting a crowd of up to 15,000 at the west front of the Capitol, a gathering that could hinder noon traffic around Capitol Hill.

The New Democrat Coalition is a group of about 80 House members. It includes Reps. Tim Roemer of Indiana, Cal Dooley of California and Adam Smith of Washington.

The group has its origins in the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that Mr. McCurdy and then-Gov. Clinton used to pull previously labor-oriented Democrats to the center on economic issues. Its members like to think of themselves as pragmatic problem solvers, who look to the private sector to solve problems, but see government as a potentially useful partner.

They spearheaded efforts to pass the Earned Income Tax Credit and the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and pushed welfare reform in 1996.

This year, they form the heart of the pro-NTR forces. And union members, who are directing their fire at undecided members of Congress, are giving them the cold shoulder.

The Clinton administration and the Republican leadership are trying to persuade Congress to approve permanent NTR by Memorial Day. Such a move would eliminate the current annual review of China's trade status and pave the way for China to enter the World Trade Organization under terms the United States negotiated in November.

But the Clinton administration is facing an uphill battle to scare up the support of enough House Democrats, many of whom need the support of labor to win tough races in November.

The AFL-CIO already has started running commercials in opposition to permanent NTR that feature Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. And today, unions hope to bring 10,000 workers to the steps of the Capitol for a demonstration, and to lobby their members of Congress.

"Trade stirs the emotions of our members at a gut level," said Peggy Taylor, director of legislative affairs for the AFL-CIO.

Mr. Dooley is helping lead the effort to pass permanent NTR for China. He said that most New Democrats have a "good relationship" with labor, even as they disagree on trade policy. But he makes no apologies for stressing policies favorable to business.

"We cannot simply embrace the traditional [Democratic] orthodoxy," the California Democrat said.

The New Democrats have declared a measure of financial independence from labor, which has financed an ever-increasing percentage of Democratic campaigns. Mr. Dooley founded the New Democrat Network, a political action committee, to support centrist Democrats.

It will raise upwards of $5 million for this election cycle, he said.

Despite their stance on the China issue, some New Democrats have still cultivated ties with labor. For example, Mr. Roemer, Indiana Democrat, has received financial support from a number of unions, including the International Association of Machinists, a vigorous opponent of permanent NTR for China.

Mr. Dooley said that he can find more common ground with rank-and-file union members than with their leadership. He also believes that unions are not in the position to make trade a defining issue, since they have other issues before the Congress.

"Labor cannot afford to be a single-issue constituency," he said.

Labor frequently works with New Democrats in the House on issues such as the minimum-wage increase, Ms. Taylor conceded. But these days, the deep gulf between these Democrats and union members is painfully obvious, and could linger into November.

"This week is all about permanent NTR for China," Ms. Taylor said.

Ms. Taylor says she is emphasizing to every undecided member of Congress that "there are no passes" on the China vote, a clear threat to vulnerable Democrats that the rank and file might not turn out as expected on election day.

But Mr. McCurdy is doing his best to persuade his former Democratic colleagues to support permanent NTR for China. He believes labor is bluffing when officials suggest they might indirectly help Republicans keep control of the House.

"Never," he said. "They'd be shooting themselves in the proverbial foot."

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