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House, Senate committees give China trade bill strong backing

Published Sep. 27, 2005

A showdown is expected next week when the legislation comes up on the House floor.

In a big victory for President Clinton and a blow for labor, legislation normalizing trade relations with China overwhelmingly won the support Wednesday of key committees in the House and Senate.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved the measure 34-4 as previously undecided committee members flocked to support the administration. A showdown on the House floor was set for next week.

Earlier, the Senate Finance Committee approved the legislation 18-1.

The wide margin was expected in the Senate, where the overall measure has broad support. But in the House, organized labor has waged a fierce campaign against the legislation, undercutting Democratic support.

Despite the vote by the House committee with jurisdiction over trade matters, sponsors still expect a close floor vote. A majority of House Democrats continue to oppose the legislation.

Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, is a member of the Ways and Means Committee. She had been undecided but voted for it Wednesday.

"I think we lose an opportunity for this country if in fact we don't do this now," Thurman said. "I think this is our best chance."

The bill would end 20 years of annual congressional votes on China's trade status and grant Beijing "permanent normal trade relations," the same low-tariff access to U.S. markets nearly every other nation in the world now enjoys.

It also would ease China's entry into the World Trade Organization, the Geneva-based organization that oversees international trade.

The House committee added bipartisan language designed to protect U.S. industries from surges in certain exports from China. It would allow the president to grantfinancial relief to industries battered by such surges.

Separate legislation to set up a commission to monitor human rights in China also was expected to be included once the bill gets to the floor.

The House vote provided a big boost for the administration and its congressional allies, who have been carefully counting support vote by vote.

"The votes reflect the strength of the agreement and affirm the president's policy of engagement with China," trade representative Charlene Barshefsky said in a statement.

Clinton welcomed "the strong bipartisan votes in both committees" and pledged in a statement to "redouble my efforts" to build support for the legislation before next week's House vote. The president is considering a five-minute address to the nation Sunday evening to promote the legislation, congressional supporters of the bill said.

Earlier, in a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., Clinton said Congress can help influence whether China will "emerge as a partner or an adversary."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., a member of the committee, said he hoped the bill would be "approved overwhelmingly" by the Senate next month. "It's not a totally easy vote but I think you've got to look at the benefits for this country and within China itself."

Supporters assert the legislation will open China's vast markets to U.S. businesses and help bring the nation of 1.2-billion people _ the world's most populous _ into the world community. Labor opposes it, criticizing China's human rights and worker protection policies and suggesting the measure could cost American manufacturing jobs.

The sole Senate vote against the bill came from Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt. He said he was protesting the continued imprisonment in China of a Tibetan musicologist, Ngawang Choepel, who attended a Vermont college.

Still, even some proponents are skeptical that China's record on human rights would improve as a result of normalized economic ties.

"Those who say change will come quickly may be misjudging 5,000 years of Chinese history," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Rockefeller and others said they were persuaded that it would help open Chinese markets to U.S. companies.

On the House side, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the panel, and Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., reached agreement with Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, on the export surge-protection language.

Levin and Bereuter also are pushing for creation of a human rights commission that would issue annual reports on China's performance to take the place of the annual congressional vote.

_ Times staff writer Jim Ross contributed to this report.