House Democrats yesterday derailed a bill that would allow U.S. companies to seek sanctions if they can show China is subsidizing its exports.
The bill fell victim to a debate about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, as well as Democratic insistence that it would be ineffective.
“This bill has nothing to do with China, it has everything to do with getting votes for CAFTA,” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.
The vote was 240-186 in favor, 40 votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to consider the bill under special procedures that limit debate. Only 19 Democrats voted yes for the United States Trade Rights Enforcement Act. Five Republicans voted no.
The act would have set up a new mechanism for companies to protect themselves against Chinese imports and established tougher enforcement of existing trade laws.
“The Democrats placed petty partisan politics first and failed to make it happen,” said Rep. Phil English, Pennsylvania Republican and a sponsor of the bill.
The China bill may be considered today under normal House rules.
The get-tough vote on China was in part meant to give a handful of Republicans some political cover to vote in favor of CAFTA, one of the Bush administration’s top legislative priorities this year.
China is the priority trade issue for some lawmakers. Mr. English, for example, insisted that the House take steps to confront unfair Chinese competition before he would consider the Central American trade legislation.
Both sides yesterday were gearing up for the CAFTA vote, rallying support and cutting deals in an effort to approve or defeat the pact.
CAFTA would create a set of rules meant to increase trade and investment among the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
House lawmakers are sharply divided on the trade agreement, which the Senate passed last month 54-45. A tight vote in the House is pending.
“This week the House will consider CAFTA,” House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said yesterday.
The Bush administration says CAFTA will help U.S. farmers and manufacturers export more to the region, while also strengthening fragile Central American democracies.
“What an important, historic opportunity to create a new future for these fragile and young democracies,” said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, alluding to insurrections that troubled the region through the 1980s.
Mr. Gutierrez, Mr. Hastert, Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, and other lawmakers and lobbyists converged on the Capitol yesterday to urge colleagues to approve CAFTA.
House lawmakers and the administration have offered the China bill and promises of new spending to monitor labor rights, as well as assurances that the agreement will not hurt sugar producers or textile manufacturers.
But Democrats are eager to deal the Bush administration a defeat, and enough members of both parties are concerned that CAFTA will hurt workers and undermine some U.S. industries that passage is uncertain.
“This agreement offends members of both parties,” said Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat.
Mr. Brown, Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, and 20 other members of Congress yesterday rallied organized labor, ranchers, environmental groups and others at an anti-CAFTA event on the Capitol’s West Lawn.