- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert yesterday said the House will vote on normalizing commercial ties with China the week of May 22, sending a message to undecided members that they should not expect a postponement until after the next election.

"We are going to move the bill," the Illinois Republican said. "We are going to have the vote, yes or no."

The decision to schedule the vote came as a relief to the White House and business groups, which had both leaned heavily on the House Republican leadership to schedule a vote out of fear that the vote on permanent normal trade relations (NTR) with China might get caught up in election-year politics.

In the last major trade policy fight, the 1997 debate over fast-track negotiating authority, Republican leaders pulled a planned vote at the last minute when it became clear that there were not enough votes to pass it. Even pro-trade members conceded that the failure to follow through on that vote damaged their credibility in the China debate.

Representatives of both sides of the issue said the margin of victory, or defeat, will be razor-thin.

"This is going to be a tough battle," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat.

Mr. Hastert's announcement marks the start of what promises to be six weeks of intense lobbying on both sides until the highly contentious issue is put to a vote before Memorial Day. Labor unions and other citizens groups are vying with the White House and business groups for the allegiance of a small pool of undecided House Democrats.

The White House, along with the Republican congressional leadership, is fighting for approval of legislation to extend to China the same trade status of NTR that all but a handful of countries enjoy. The move would pave the way for China to enter the World Trade Organization under the terms of an agreement the United States negotiated with China in November.

But a hodgepodge of labor unions, environmentalists and human rights activists appears set to dominate the debate in Washington over the next week, as protesters descend on the capital for the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

"The labor movement will bring in excess of 10,000 workers who are taking vacation time to come to Washington and express their opposition to permanent NTR on Wednesday," said Scott Nova, director of Citizens Trade Campaign, an umbrella group that is helping organize opposition to the legislation.

Mr. Nova said NTR opponents also expect to flex their political muscle as members leave Washington for the two-week congressional recess that begins on April 15. But business plans to be ready for them in the legislative districts, suggesting that undecided members will not be able to avoid the China debate in the coming weeks, even at home.

"We've seen a lot of energy from our members at the grass-roots level," said Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronics Industries Alliance.

Passage of permanent NTR appears virtually certain in the Senate, but it is still bitterly contested in the House. House Republicans say privately that the White House needs to deliver at least 70 Democrats to pass the legislation in the House.

Mr. Hastert's decision to schedule a vote came after private assurances from the White House that it has rounded up a significant number of House Democrats but that it needed a date for a vote to lock in the remaining members, administration and congressional officials said.

Still, the fight will be an uphill one, these officials said. Many of the potential supporters are "leaning yes" but could still ultimately oppose permanent NTR.

"You would have trouble organizing a couple of bridge games with the number of House Democrats who are publicly in favor of permanent NTR," Mr. Nova said.

If the vote appears in doubt, the White House could resort to side deals with individual members that may or may not have any bearing on trade with China. Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, has developed proposals that would lock in a congressional role in U.S.-China policy, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey said this week that the Republican leadership is willing put them to a vote if they help pass permanent NTR.

"If it does, in fact, turn out to be a really tight vote … then willingness to look at other things that help people along will always be there," the Texas Republican said.

But President Clinton's lame-duck status could substantially weaken his ability to cater to individual members' demands to round up votes in the House, a point underscored last week by House Minority Whip David E. Bonior, the chief opponent of permanent NTR in the House.

"The president is leaving office, so he does not have much time to fulfill their requests," the Michigan Democrat said.

For now, NTR supporters are focused on making the case for Chinese membership in the WTO. In particular, they are trying to emphasize that this trade agreement is not like the North American Free Trade Agreement, in which the United States had to make substantial concessions to Mexico.

"I am astonished at the number of members who do not understand this," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican. "They think this is a normal trade agreement" with U.S. concessions.

And, the trade legislation's backers want to lay the groundwork for a narrow victory in the House vote by getting the Senate to at least begin consideration of the legislation.

"The onus is now on the Senate Finance Committee to move expeditiously," said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat.

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