Trying To Please Everyone Could Scuttle The China Trade Bill

With a climactic vote looming in May, the business-backed drive for normalized trade ties with Beijing may rest on some tricky maneuvers to attach controversial amendments to the China trade legislation. The objective is to win over small bands of holdouts on the Democratic Left and GOP Right. But it's a dangerous game.

Burdening the trade bill with partisan baggage could destabilize the entire effort. Add requirements for U.S. investors in China to hew to stringent labor and environmental standards, and business and the GOP could rebel. Tack on conservative provisions for weapons sales to Taiwan, and Democrats might desert the coalition--along with Beijing. To complicate matters, some add-ons may even run afoul of World Trade Organization rules if they link trade privileges to performance on such matters as human rights or the environment.

Officially, neither the pro-China business lobby nor its foes among labor and greens support the proposed amendments now sprouting on Capitol Hill. And the White House prefers the simple two-page China trade bill it sent to Congress. But pro-China forces also concede that with so many House members on the fence just weeks before the vote, new legislative "fig leaves" may be required to woo holdouts on both sides of the aisle. Pro-China Democrats say only 50 Dems are ready to vote for permanent Normal Trade Relations (also known as Most Favored Nation status). Pro-China Republicans say they have 140 votes. So that's still 28 shy of the 218 needed.

LABOR'S WORRY. The delicate attempt to amend the core bill has both sides worried, albeit for different reasons. "One of the surest ways to defeat the legislation would be to have proposals from liberals and conservatives that are not supported by the center," frets Calman J. Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a group of big exporters. And Big Labor worries that the amendments just might attract enough votes to put the trade bill over the top. Says Peggy Taylor, legislative director of the AFL-CIO: "We're not interested in providing cover to members to vote to give up the only real leverage we already have on China"--the annual grant of temporary Normal Trade Relations.

Many of the amendment ideas come from an unexpected source: Representative Sander M. Levin, a suburban Detroit Democrat who usually sides with the United Auto Workers on trade. His proposals have drawn UAW pickets to his office, but Levin, who has no opposition this election, isn't worried. His ideas include a U.S. commission on China's human rights, annual WTO review of Beijing's record on market-opening promises, and an environmental impact study of China's pollution potential. Businesses anxious to invest in China are wary that a Levin proposal to strengthen U.S. barriers against temporary import surges could provoke a backlash by Beijing. Nor do potential investors like a plan by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to impose a "code of conduct" on U.S. companies in China.

THE T-WORD. On the GOP side, proposals by House Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) are opposed by business for fear they'll alienate Democratic centrists. Thompson would make NTR contingent upon Beijing halting the sale of nuclear technology to rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. DeLay is urging members to link the House-passed Taiwan Security Enhancement Act to the China trade bill. His measure dictates closer U.S. military ties to Taiwan.

Few expect the maneuvering on all these legislative barnacles to commence in earnest much before the scheduled May 22 vote. Both pro- and anti-China forces are instead hoping that a sudden stampede to their banner by undecided House members will make it unnecessary. But in an election year, it's often the fig leaf that makes the crucial difference on controversial legislation.