- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2000

A key House committee is expected to give a solid endorsement today to a landmark trade agreement that the Clinton administration negotiated to bring China into the World Trade Organization.

The panel also will likely sign off on a crucial part of accompanying legislation designed by Reps. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, and Doug Bereuter, Nebraska Republican, to win the allegiance of undecided members, especially Democrats.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade matters, will mark up legislation today permanently cementing China's access to the U.S. market, a status known as normal trade relations (NTR). The panel is virtually certain to approve permanent NTR on the strength of Republican votes and the support of a critical mass of Democrats.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, the subject of furious speculation over the last few days, announced yesterday that he would back permanent NTR for China. Mr. Rangel, the senior Democrat on Ways and Means, said the accompanying legislation was central to his decision.

"Let me make it abundantly clear that I'm going to support granting this and I don't have any problems at all in terms of the agreement," Mr. Rangel said.

Rep. Xavier Becerra will back the measure as well. The California Democrat and Ways and Means member is a crucial addition to the pro-NTR forces because of the weight he carries in the House Hispanic Caucus. Mr. Rangel's decision also could influence other members to follow suit.

China's trade status currently is reviewed on an annual basis.

Opponents of permanent NTR for China downplayed the significance of the Ways and Means vote, saying that the full House which will vote next week is much less inclined to back free-trade measures than the committee.

"People should not be overwhelmed by that experience," said Rep. David E. Bonior, the Michigan Democrat who is leading the anti-NTR forces. "What matters is what happens on the floor."

In addition, Texas Gov. George W. Bush today will call on Republicans and Democrats to put aside politics and pass permanent NTR for China in a speech in Seattle, sources said. The Republican presidential candidate's speech will make the case for NTR on economic, political and national security grounds.

Ways and Means Republicans have agreed tentatively to mark up one major provision of the Levin-Bereuter proposal, a mechanism designed to limit sudden surges of Chinese imports for the next 15 years, House aides said.

But the House Republican leadership, in a meeting yesterday, chose not to throw its weight behind other provisions in the Levin-Bereuter plan, House aides said. The plan would set up a congressional-executive commission to monitor China's human rights record and encourage an annual review of Chinese trading practices.

"The leadership wants to see how [the anti-surge mechanism] fares [in Ways and Means] before they set out plans for other parts of the bill," Mr. Bereuter said.

The import-surge mechanism is particularly sensitive because free-trade Republicans have long been leery of changes to U.S. trade laws that might restrict imports. Republican and Democratic staff were in intense negotiations late yesterday over the specific language Ways and Means will adopt today.

The leadership also wants to ascertain how many additional votes the Levin-Bereuter proposal would lock in and could wait to endorse the plan until next week, a House aide said.

Without the leadership's full endorsement, many Democrats on Ways and Means who vote for permanent NTR for China in committee likely will indicate that their vote could change if the Levin-Bereuter effort falls apart.

"Members will undoubtedly reserve final judgment until they see the final package," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat, who is leading the effort to round up Democratic votes for NTR.

But Mr. Matsui and other NTR supporters predicted that Mr. Levin and Mr. Bereuter would be able to hammer out details acceptable to the Republican leadership.

"I think that we have a good chance of having a compromise package," said Rep. David Dreier, California Republican.

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