- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2000

Opponents of normalized commercial ties with China Thursday revealed they have the support of 23 previously undecided House Democrats in their insurgent bid to deny China permanent access to the American market.

The move, which bites deeply into the pool of Democrats needed to pass permanent normal trade relations (NTR) with China, ratchets up the pressure on supporters to scramble for a narrow victory in a House vote that is now certain to come in late May.

Nevertheless, even Minority Whip David E. Bonior, the leading NTR opponent in the House, conceded that pro-NTR forces are still within reach of winning this tight and extremely volatile fight.

"I can't tell you what the other side has right now," the Michigan Democrat said at a news conference.

The 23 new opponents of permanent NTR conveyed their decision to President Clinton in a letter Thursday.

NTR supporters downplayed the significance of the announcement, but could not publicly demonstrate that they are consolidating their position in the House.

"These people [who declared their opposition] are not surprises, but it is hurtful," said Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat and a supporter of the measure.

The House is headed for a vote on the China trade legislation before Memorial Day, and the Republican leadership has made clear that it intends to announce a date next week, members and business officials said Thursday.

"I'm confident that we are going to see a vote in May," Rep. Jim Ramstad, Minnesota Republican, said Thursday.

The Clinton administration is lobbying Congress to pass permanent NTR for China by this summer. The change to U.S. law, which now requires an annual renewal of China's trade status, would pave the way for the Asian giant to enter the World Trade Organization under the terms of an agreement the United States negotiated last year.

The main success of the anti-NTR forces was in winning over nearly one-fifth of Democrats who have been willing to extend China's trade privileges on an annual basis in the past, but are now refusing to endorse permanent NTR.

Of the 23 who signed the letter, 19 of them had supported the annual renewal.

In 1999, 110 Democrats voted to extend China's trading privileges.

Though pro-NTR forces believe they are making headway, Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat, said they are not asking members who have privately pledged their support to come out publicly.

"It creates a sense of uncertainty among members to parade them out in public," Mr. Matsui said.

Mr. Bonior insisted he has commitments from roughly two-thirds of the 211 House Democrats. Mr. Matsui, the Democratic point man of the pro-NTR forces, disputes this claim.

Even if Mr. Bonior's numbers are correct, there would still be at least 70 Democrats willing to back permanent NTR, Mr. Matsui noted. And Republicans have said privately they could make up the difference and put NTR over the top in the House.

In addition, Mr. Bonior tried and failed to win over at least two other members, who refused to sign the letter, House aides said.

Still, industry officials conceded that business lobbyists had lavished considerable time on these members in an effort to win their vote.

One signatory to the letter, Rep. Joe Moakley, Massachusetts Democrat, was a particularly painful loss. Mr. Moakley is the ranking member on the powerful House Rules Committee and a senior member of the Democratic Caucus, and one industry lobbyist said his support for NTR could have pushed other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to do the same.

Another member, Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez, Texas Democrat, had previously anchored his delegation's strong backing for NTR.

And Rep. Michael R. McNulty, New York Democrat, also signed on. Mr. McNulty is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which is traditionally a bastion of support on trade votes.

With Thursday's announcements, the focus of the NTR debate is now shifting to the intense lobbying efforts by both sides before the approaching two-week congressional recess, which begins on April 15. Business groups are bringing employees in for a day of congressional visits on April 4. And labor, the most active foe of permanent NTR, is planning a massive rally on the steps of the Capitol on April 12.

The most crucial factor in the outcome of the NTR vote will be what happens during the recess, sources on both sides said. And that has supporters like Mr. Matsui worried.

"Labor is better at lobbying back home than business," he said.

But two Cabinet members, Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, will have a chance to respond to labor's arguments. They are taking two congressional delegations to China in the latter half of the recess.

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