- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

The Republican House leadership wants to hold a vote on China's trade status by late May, according to congressional and business sources.

The move toward a vote is the surest sign yet that supporters of extending China permanent normal trade relations (NTR) believe they can round up enough votes to pass the legislation in the House.

"It augurs well for a successful outcome on this vote," said Calman Cohen of the Business Coalition for U.S.-China trade.

Business groups, which have made the China trade issue a high priority, have pushed for an early vote to avoid seeing NTR get tangled up in election-year politics in the summer.

Though the leadership is emphasizing at every turn that the Clinton administration must persuade undecided House Democrats to vote in favor of NTR for China, Republicans are willing to schedule a vote before the necessary backing is secured. The move amounts to a leap of faith that setting the date will create a momentum leading to passage.

"The Republican leadership is very much in agreement on this approach to the legislation," said Jonathan Baron, spokesman for Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

The Clinton administration wants Congress to pass permanent NTR for China this year to pave the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization under the terms of an agreement the United States negotiated in November.

At the same time, two House members fighting NTR were trying to get undecided members to go public with their opposition, informed sources said. The effort has the backing of Minority Whip David E. Bonior, Michigan Democrat, the sources said.

Reps. David Wu, Oregon Democrat, and John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, are circulating a letter opposing permanent NTR and want to get undecided members to declare their opposition as a group to reduce the pressure on individual members.

Though NTR supporters face a tough fight, the May time frame seems to offer the best chances for passage this year.

All sides agree that voting in the summer is politically treacherous because partisan election-year politics could intrude on the divisive China issue.

But May offers important advantages, congressional and business sources said. Undecided Democrats will have completed trips to Taiwan with Cabinet members, and committees will have had time to fully review the issues surrounding the China vote.

The most important caveat in Republican assurances has been that the White House make an all-out effort to win over wavering House Democrats.

"I cannot emphasize that enough," Mr. Baron said.

But so far, Republicans have publicly and privately expressed satisfaction that Mr. Clinton is pushing the issue hard, and the White House has shown no sign of letting up.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, has called on the White House to deliver 100 House Democrats, but Republicans have said privately that 70 would be enough.

Business lobbyists also have been exerting heavy pressure on the Republican leadership to hold a vote by Memorial Day, industry sources said. Several sources said business lobbyists also have gone so far as to threaten to withhold campaign financing if the leadership does not follow through with a vote.

Equally important is the decision by Republicans to not demand that victory be completely assured before a date is set for a vote.

The strategy offers a way out of the partisan conundrum that prevented a vote on "fast-track" trade negotiating authority in 1997, congressional sources said.

On that vote, Republicans demanded that President Clinton persuade enough House Democrats to pass fast-track before holding a vote, but the White House complained that until a vote was scheduled, undecided Democrats refused to lend their support.

"If setting a date certain helps us close that gap and get those votes … I'm willing to do it," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, told Agence France-Presse.

In making a case for normalized trade yesterday, the Clinton administration announced that China has complied with an April 1999 agreement on market access for agricultural products. The deal should have paved the way for imports of American meat, citrus and wheat, but until yesterday China had not directed its port authorities to admit the products.

However, industry officials, wary of past Chinese promises, said they will remain skeptical until U.S. products actually enter China.

"We're hoping for the best, but the jury is still out," said Nicholas Giordano of the National Pork Producers Council.

An administration official said that the United States strongly warned China that its failure to promptly comply with the agreement was hurting the case for NTR.

"It took a remarkable amount of prodding," the official said.

"What this proves is that China cannot be trusted to comply with trade agreements in a timely fashion," said Scott Nova of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a group opposing permanent NTR for China.

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