- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said yesterday that he will not rush to pass a China trade bill before Congress adjourns for the Independence Day recess.

The Mississippi Republican said the Senate would first focus on pending appropriations legislation, a frustrating development for business groups that had hope for quick passage of the trade bill.

Mr. Lott also said that he would make room for senators to offer amendments on the China legislation. Senate supporters have said they will fight to keep intact the version passed by the House.

"Senators have strong feelings on all sides, and some of them are going to insist on offering amendments, Mr. Lott said. "And I just think if we rush to it, we could take something that probably is going to pass overwhelmingly and get it tangled up in a way that would be counterproductive."

Mr. Lott pointed out that Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, wants to enact legislation regarding China's involvement in weapons proliferation. Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, may also offer amendments to the China bill.

But Mr. Lott has said that he believes the China bill should be passed without amendments, Senate sources said.

The trade bill would extend to China permanent access to U.S. markets on the same terms as most other countries, a status known as permanent normal trade relations (NTR).

Achieving that status would help China enter the World Trade Organization under the terms of a market-opening agreement the United States negotiated last year.

Following a hard-fought campaign waged by both the White House and the Republican leadership, the House approved the bill on May 24 by the unexpectedly large margin of 237-197.

The Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade issues, then approved the House bill and urged the Senate leadership to bring it to a quick vote without amendments. This path would allow it to go directly to the president's desk for signature, and avoid the need for a House-Senate conference.

But a number of Republican senators, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said they wanted to pass the appropriations bills before taking up the China legislation.

Since the Clinton administration has made the China bill a top priority, Senate observers felt Mr. McConnell was using it as leverage in negotiations with the White House over appropriations bills.

This strategy has drawn the ire of many business lobbyists, who have made the legislation their top priority. Industry groups had hoped that the bill would sail through the Senate after the drawn-out House fight.

In a sign that corporate American attaches a high importance to swift passage of the bill, a group of 17 CEOs from major U.S. corporations wrote Mr. Lott late last week urging him to schedule a vote on the bill by the end of June. The group included such heavyweights as CitiGroup, Motorola, Intel, the Boeing Co. and Eastman Kodak.

"It's good politics and good policy to pass this now," said Calman Cohen of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, which has lobbied hard for the China bill. "And Republicans will get credit for it."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who is engaged in a separate feud with Mr. Lott over Democratic efforts to amend the appropriations bills, also called for a vote before the Fourth of July.

"There's no reason we should wait," Mr. Daschle said.

He made clear that he shares industry's fear that unexpected developments in U.S.-China relations or other areas could derail the bill.

"We have changing circumstances constantly," he said. "Any kind of new development could put a different light on all of this, and I think it's important for us not to allow whatever unforeseen circumstance change something as important as this."

Frustrated by the delay, Republican Sens. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Craig Thomas of Wyoming are circulating a letter to senators urging Mr. Lott to schedule a vote before July 4 and pledging to block amendments to the bill. A similar letter was sent to Mr. Lott last week by a group of centrist Democrats.

But with Republicans being the main stumbling block to quick passage of the China bill, business lobbyists have found themselves, at least temporarily, aligned with Senate Democrats. Privately, several of them have discussed whether to curtail contributions to Republicans, and especially the National Republican Senatorial Committee, until Mr. Lott acts on the trade legislation.

"It's the Republicans who made the decision that [the China bill] is the hostage here," one lobbyist said.

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