The Senate yesterday turned back the most serious challenge to a bill that would expand commerce with China, effectively clearing the last major hurdle to the passage of the historic trade legislation.
By a decisive 65-32 margin, senators rejected an amendment to the trade bill sponsored by Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, that would have penalized China for its involvement in weapons proliferation. Mr. Thompson argued that China is posing a “mortal danger” to the United States.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said the bill, which he has held up in the Senate in an effort to gain leverage over the White House in budget negotiations, would win approval soon in the upper body.
“It’s going to pass. It’s time now we get to the closing,” Mr. Lott said Tuesday.
Jubilant business lobbyists, who have campaigned heavily since the beginning of the year to pass the bill, also predicted that final Senate passage would follow soon.
“Rejection of the Thompson amendment clears the way,” said Christopher Padilla, a spokesman for the Business Coalition for U.S.-China Trade. “This was the biggest hurdle to clear, and we cleared it. Now, it’s just a matter of time.”
The Senate is considering other changes to the China trade bill, such as provisions on human rights and American companies’ conduct in China, but observers give them scant chance of passage.
The Senate is debating whether to extend China permanent normal trade relations, a status that has been renewed annually. It extends to China the same tariff treatment accorded all but a handful of “rogue” nations like Iraq, Cuba and North Korea.
The change would smooth the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and open its market to a broad array of American goods and services under a trade agreement negotiated by the United States in November.
The House passed the trade legislation in May by 235-195.
Mr. Lott still must file a petition to end debate on the China trade bill, so final passage is unlikely until next week, congressional sources said. But the vote on the proliferation amendment, sponsored by Mr. Thompson and Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, is widely regarded as a clear signal that the Senate will endorse the bill overwhelmingly.
“This was the telling vote on [the China trade legislation,]” said Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a business group.
Despite strong bipartisan support for the trade bill, Mr. Thompson’s amendment, which would have imposed sanctions on China for national security reasons, gathered some momentum in the past two months. Reports that China still is selling missile technology to rogue nations has given Mr. Thompson’s effort added drive.
But a vigorous campaign by business groups to kill the amendment beat back the challenge. Congressional supporters also warned that additions to the China trade bill would effectively kill it for the year because amending it would force a second House vote.
Pro-trade forces in the House, who waged a bitterly contested battle to win passage in the lower chamber, warned that the House would refuse to take up the politically explosive issue again.
“All senators agree that we must address China’s record on proliferation, but it is equally clear that this permanent trade bill was never the right vehicle for that debate,” said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat.
Business lobbyists, who have consistently opposed bills similar to Mr. Thompson’s on the grounds that they are ineffective, claimed victory in their efforts to defeat the amendment on its merits.
“Proliferation will still be a concern for this nation and our allies,” said Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronic Industries Alliance. “But we need a rational approach to the issue.”
Mr. Thompson, at times angrily denouncing fellow senators for their unwillingness to adopt his legislation, was unable to muster even an agreement that would have resulted in an up-or-down vote.
“The leadership of the Chinese government is basically giving us the back of their hand,” Mr. Thompson said.
Sens. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, and Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, blocked him repeatedly, largely because Mr. Thompson’s amendment, with its financial sanctions, would have bypassed the Senate Banking Committee, which Mr. Gramm heads.
Also yesterday, Sen. John Kyl, Arizona Republican, said he would not seek changes to the trade legislation that would guarantee that China could not block Taiwan’s entry into the WTO.
China had threatened to seek a provision in its WTO accession agreement that Taiwan could join the WTO only as part of China, a position the Clinton administration quickly rejected.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kyl requested, and received, from President Clinton written assurances that the United States would block any such demands by China.