- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2000

The Clinton administration and the Republican leadership yesterday appeared headed for victory in a bitter, months-long battle to pass legislation expanding trade with China.

The bill got an additional push yesterday as at least nine Democrats, the key swing group in the battle, came out in favor of the legislation.

At the same time, Republicans worked to exceed estimates of the number of votes they were expected to deliver to pass permanent normal trade relations (NTR) with China.

Supporters of the bill emphasized that there are still undecided members whose support they need before the vote this afternoon. But they reckoned with backing from enough of them to reach the critical threshold of 218 when the 435-member House votes.

"I am confident we'll have 218 by the vote," said Rep. Jim Ramstad, Minnesota Republican. "We've got people who have said they'll be with us."

Pro-NTR Democrats were equally upbeat.

"We're about there, and we're very confident," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, the California Democrat who has led the pro-NTR forces in his party.

By contrast, opponents of the legislation gave little indication that they are within striking distance of victory, preferring instead to emphasize that they will not give up until the vote is taken.

"We are fighting all the way to the end," said Rep. David E. Bonior, the Michigan Democrat who is leading the Democratic opposition to NTR in the House.

Opponents a diverse coalition of human rights groups, environmentalists, veterans groups and conservative activists held a vigil on the steps of the Capitol. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said he and state labor leaders would keep up the pressure on members still on the fence until the vote is taken.

At the same time, the United Auto Workers lashed out at Vice President Al Gore in unusually harsh terms for his backing of the China trade deal, which major U.S. corporations strongly support, and hinted that the union might back Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for president.

"One moment, presidential candidate Gore is telling the labor movement that he supports them on trade issues," UAW President Steve Yokich said. "The next, Vice President Gore is holding hands with the profiteers of the world."

Passage of permanent NTR for China would grant the Asian giant access to the U.S. market on the same terms as the vast majority of other countries. It also would ease the way for China to join the World Trade Organization under the terms of a landmark trade agreement China negotiated with the United States last year.

Pro-NTR forces were heartened by vote counts showing that Republicans and Democrats together are on the threshold of victory, and need only a minority of the remaining undecided members to prevail. Members and senior administration officials repeatedly expressed strong confidence that these undecideds will vote for permanent NTR when the House votes this afternoon.

"We will probably not really know for sure until [House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican] bangs the gavel and the last member casts the last vote for the last time," Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley said.

Accordingly, President Clinton focused his attention on the remaining undecided members with both telephone calls and in-person appeals to back the China trade legislation. The White House also announced yesterday an agreement with the House Republican leadership on an initiative to encourage investment in low-income areas.

Black and Hispanic members were strong supporters of the plan, and Mr. Daley said that completing the investment initiative helped lock in their support for the China bill.

Yesterday, supporters of the China trade deal finally were able to secure the support of a critical group of Texas Democrats whose backing was crucial to the fate of the bill. Reps. Martin Frost, Jim Turner, Ruben Hinojosa, Silvestre Reyes, Solomon P. Ortiz and Sheila Jackson-Lee all said they would vote for permanent NTR for China. They were joined by Reps. Allen Boyd of Florida, Robert E. "Bud" Cramer of Alabama and Gregory W. Meeks of New York.

There are now 68 Democrats prepared to back the China legislation, a leading Democratic member said. With Republicans privately betting that as many as 170 members of their party could vote for it, pro-NTR forces appeared set for a clear victory. The situation represents a dramatic turnaround, members said, even from last week, when NTR backers faced the daunting task of winning over a large majority of the undecided members.

Now, even a small group of the roughly 20 members who have not indicated how they will vote would be enough to put NTR over the top, members said.

Republican NTR supporters have been surprisingly successful in winning of members of their own party. On Monday, Rep. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who is a bellwether for religious conservatives, said he would vote for the plan. Yesterday, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a centrist Republican from New York who had been courted by NTR opponents, also announced his support for the legislation.

"A lot of [different Republican] conservatives had opposed this bill" but are now supporting it, said Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington.

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