Legislation to expand trade with China has gained little momentum toward passage, despite an intense campaign by the White House and business groups, a senior Republican lawmaker said yesterday.
The comment by Rep. Bill Archer of Texas presaged a high-stakes strategy involving ex-presidents, governors and a possible presidential address to the nation to persuade undecided House members to help pass the bill by Memorial Day.
“I do not see the building of the public opinion polls and the building of support that I thought would occur by now,” Mr. Archer, a backer of the legislation, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “There’s more work to be done now than I anticipated we would have to do.”
Supporters and opponents of granting China permanent access to the U.S. market, a status known as permanent normal trade relations (NTR), fought each other to a standstill in members’ districts over the two-week congressional recess. Business groups portrayed the situation as a victory because they staved off organized labor’s grass-roots efforts.
“Recess was a defensive situation where we wanted to hold our own,” said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, a California Democrat leading the pro-NTR forces in the House. “And we did.”
Opponents countered that the recess netted valuable gains for their side, enough to withstand the furious campaign being prepared by the White House.
“We got [private] commitments from so many members over the recess that I’m not concerned about this pressure from the White House,” said Lori Wallach, director of the anti-NTR group Global Trade Watch.
Two Democrats declared their opposition over the recess. But two others, including a senior Democrat, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, opted to back permanent NTR since Congress reconvened.
Much effort will focus on undecided Democrats, a group that now numbers about 40, according to informed sources. Pro-NTR forces have the backing of about 50 Democrats in the House, and believe they need about half of the undecided members, the sources said.
Since Republican leaders are shooting for 150 to 160 votes, the legislation which needs 218 votes in the 435-member House would pass by a narrow margin.
“We don’t have the 218 votes today, nor does the opposition,” Commerce Secretary William M. Daley said at a business conference yesterday. “Most of the undecideds remain undecided.”
The House leadership is laying its prestige on the line with a thorough, centralized effort to win Republican votes and round out the White House campaign to win the allegiance of undecided Democrats, said House members and business lobbyists.
“We will deliver a large majority of the Republican members of the House,” Mr. Archer said.
In previous trade votes, Republican leaders have been reluctant to provide the margin of victory for a president who is unable to persuade even half of the 211 House Democrats to vote for a White House-backed bill. But this time around, they have a built-in incentive to be the decisive force in the NTR battle.
Republicans want to demonstrate to companies that will help fund campaigns, especially the high-tech industry, that Republicans are pulling out all the stops to pass permanent NTR for China, members said.
The Republican strategy hit one snag on Monday, when a blue-ribbon commission issued a scathing report on the state of religious freedom in China, an issue important to many conservatives. The report, which recommended a vote against NTR, is particularly embarrassing to the White House, which helped appoint commission members.
“A grant of [permanent NTR] at this juncture could be seen by Chinese people struggling for religious freedom as an abandonment of their cause at a moment of great difficulty,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican.
But NTR supporters are likely to stress that religious leaders are divided on the issue of trade with China, with leaders like evangelist Billy Graham strongly favoring a policy of openness.
“Every year, there has been a split in the religious community on this,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican.
Both sides will spend the next few weeks battling for momentum and the public perception that they are making headway. Republicans want to pull together a group of undecideds who will declare their support for permanent NTR later this week, House aides said, and opponents are trying to engineer a similar event.
The White House is trying to arrange a public endorsement of permanent NTR for China by a group made up of ex-presidents, former Cabinet officials and other prominent Americans.
“It will be a group that can communicate the historic nature of this vote,” said Daniel Cruise, spokesman for the White House “war room” on the China vote.
President Clinton met with a group of House members last night, and the White House is even contemplating a presidential address to the nation on trade with China, something Mr. Archer has demanded repeatedly. Mr. Clinton also is meeting with Martin Lee, the Hong Kong dissident and NTR supporter, who also will lobby undecided members.
Governors will descend on Washington in two weeks to lobby members from their states, according to Gov. Edward T. Schafer, North Dakota Republican.
Both Democratic and Republican NTR supporters have explicitly warned business groups that they need to keep up the pressure on undecided members. In particular, companies need to demonstrate that they can produce volumes of communications from employees and stockholders to counter the thousands of union members who will be urging members to oppose NTR.
“This is so important that it should dominate your very being for the next four weeks,” Mr. Archer told the chamber.