Congressional Leaders Pass On China State Dinner

Senators Reid and McConnell
Harry Reid, Democratic Senator from Nevada, left, speaks to reporters as Mitch McConnell, Republican Senator from Kentucky, looks on, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

Three of the four top U.S. congressional leaders skipped a state dinner tonight with Chinese President Hu Jintao, highlighting tension between Congress and the world’s second-largest economic power when President Barack Obama is trying to strengthen ties.

House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky took a pass on the black-tie event at the White House. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, a critic of China’s human-rights policy, attended the state dinner, the first for a Chinese leader in more than 13 years.

All three no-shows, through their aides, cited scheduling conflicts. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Reid, a Nevada Democrat who has called the Chinese president “a dictator,” are to meet Hu at the Capitol tomorrow.

“I look forward to the meeting,” Boehner told reporters today.

If Hu or Obama had concerns about the leaders’ decisions to stay away, neither would say. At a news conference, Hu deferred a question on the matter to Obama, saying the president was “in a better position to answer.” Obama never did.

Lawmakers in both political parties have been making hostile statements and proposing tough economic measures against China, including legislation to let the U.S. government impose duties on the nation for undervaluing its currency.

Scoring With Voters

Political messages critical of China scored high with voters during last year’s congressional campaign, said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who researched the issue while advising candidates.

“There’s no question that the American public looks at China as very much a serious competitor -- it’s not quite an enemy, but it’s a competitor -- and Americans are very wary of China these days,” he said.

Mellman, who has advised Reid, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and numerous House members, said virtually every candidate he worked with last year touched on the issue in some way.

The dinner’s 225 guests included Chief Executive Officers Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric Co., along with former President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, actor Jackie Chan and singer Barbra Streisand.

Hu’s visit is focused on economic ties between the two countries, including more than $400 billion in annual trade, as well as differences over human rights, China’s enforcement of intellectual-property rights and what U.S. officials say is the artificially low value of the yuan.

Higher Import Duties

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a letter this week that they will try to revive House-passed legislation to let U.S. businesses seek higher duties on some Chinese imports to offset any advantage from an undervalued currency. The bill died in the Senate last year.

At the same time, lawmakers preparing to receive Hu at the Capitol tomorrow are making it clear that the Chinese president is no friend.

“He is a dictator,” Reid told a Las Vegas television station yesterday. “He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have. Maybe I shouldn’t have said ‘dictator,’ but they have a different type of government than we have, and that is an understatement.”

Republicans and Democrats hammered at China during a briefing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee today.

‘Monstrous Regime’

Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, a longtime critic of China’s human-rights record, called Hu an “oppressor” and a “murderer,” questioning why Obama was giving a respectful welcome to “a monstrous regime.”

Democratic Representative Albio Sires of New Jersey said China was seeking “world domination.” New Jersey Republican Representative Chris Smith suggested that Hu should be brought before an international criminal tribunal instead of feted at the White House.

The remarks were in contrast to the scene today at the executive mansion, where Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcomed Hu with an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn.

Obama said the U.S. and China “have an enormous stake in each other’s success.” Hu said, “Our cooperation as partners should be based on mutual respect.”

Lawmakers’ slights of Hu may add to distrust between the two nations, said Dan Mahaffee, an expert on China at the Washington-based Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

‘Unfortunate Message’

“It sends an unfortunate message that at a time of competition between the two countries, that American politicians are busy looking inward,” Mahaffee said, adding that lawmakers are playing to public fears.

A January survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 53 percent of Americans said it was important for the U.S. to get tougher with China on trade and economic issues. One in five, or 20 percent, said China posed the greatest threat to the U.S. of any country, up from 11 percent in November 2009.

“Local pressure at the district translates up,” Mahaffee said.

Dozens of congressional candidates aired television advertisements last year seizing on the theme. In one, Reid called his Tea Party-supported Republican opponent Sharron Angle “a foreign worker’s best friend,” and said she backed tax breaks for “outsourcing to China and India.”

California Campaign

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California made similar charges against her Republican rival, former Hewlett-Packard Co. Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina, saying she shipped jobs “to Shanghai instead of San Jose.”

Republicans hit on the theme too. In a spot set to Chinese-sounding music, candidate Spike Maynard slammed Democratic Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia for backing Obama’s economic-stimulus law, saying it helped fund projects powered by Chinese-made wind turbines.

“Only a politician who’s been in Washington 34 years would vote to help foreign companies create Chinese jobs making windmills,” said the advertisement, which featured pictures of Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary who ruled the People’s Republic of China from its founding in 1949 to his death in 1976.

Reid and Boxer won re-election; Maynard lost.

The potency of China as a campaign theme was clear, said Clayton Dube, who leads the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute in Los Angeles.

“Part of it is a genuine worry that the United States is being victimized by an all-powerful Chinese government,” Dube said. “The notion that things are not fair is a very powerful one. It resonates with Americans all the time, particularly in hard times.”

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