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Lobbyists go all out on China trade bill

Days before a House vote, they're flooding undecided lawmakers with visits, letters, phone calls and e-mails.

In the days before a key China trade vote, the AFL-CIO assembled a "cell phone drill team" in front of Rep. Edward Markey's Massachusetts office. Intel Corp. used a more conventional lobbying technique, flooding Capitol Hill with 5,000 letters from employees.

Special interests are spending millions to sway undecided lawmakers before this week's House vote on permanent trade relations with China.

"It depends on how creative we can get," said Peggy Taylor, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO.

The labor federation's member unions also pitched a tent in front of Democratic Rep. Bud Cramer's Alabama office and delivered checks emblazoned "no blank check for China" to the office of Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon. She wound up endorsing the bill while Markey said he would vote no.

Both sides flooded television talk shows Sunday with advocates and paid commercials. Business groups including Motorola Corp. aired ads portraying China as a burgeoning market that will turn to other suppliers if the United States does not boost trade between the two nations. Opponents, including organized labor groups, countered with commercials saying China does not deserve a permanent trade accord because of its record on human rights, the environment and militarism.

The millions of special interest money _ $10-million by the Business Roundtable alone _ have gone for air fare, postage, lobbyists' salaries, and even a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-published glossy brochure with small-business owners touting the benefits of China trade.

Business owners, union members, farmers, religious leaders and countless other advocates _ even a busload of Tibetan activists _ have visited lawmakers in Washington and their home districts. The chamber has 20 full-time lobbyists just working on China this month.

So many people have gone through Rep. James Walsh's office, for example, that the New York Republican has decided not to meet with any more advocates, an aide said. For Walsh, the lobbying is as intense as any issue he has faced since being elected in 1988.

Other lawmakers are getting a steady stream of visits, phone calls and letters.

"It's been intense and passionate on both sides," acknowledged freshman Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who was visited by 40 Tibetan activists opposing China trade but has since decided to endorse the bill.

Business leaders argue that trade with China will help bring American political ideals, such as freedom, to that country. Others insist that granting permanent normal trade relations to China _ rather than going through a yearly renewal _ will make it easier for the country to crack down on dissidents.

"Next year, they can arrest more bishops, torture evangelical pastors, rearrest all the dissidents and we can't do anything about it," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.

A series of AFL-CIO ads that aired last month echoed those concerns about human rights.

"If you give China permanent trade status, and don't talk about it once a year they'll feel that they can do whatever they want, however they want," Chinese human rights activist Wei Jingsheng said in one ad.

Environmental and veterans' groups also oppose the legislation.

The business community, meanwhile, is taking to heart late House Speaker Tip O'Neill's dictum that all politics is local. Trade groups are not sending their Washington lobbyists to lawmakers' offices alone but instead are bringing along representatives of local corporations.

"When a nation is your customer, you're less likely to treat them as an enemy," said R. Scott Miller, director of national government relations for Procter & Gamble, told Rep. John Cooksey, R-La. P&G employs 250 people in Alexandria, La., manufacturing Tide detergent.

Blaine Boswell, vice president of public affairs for Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries, which employs 4,400 in Pennsylvania, told an aide to undecided Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., how the company's Chinese plants were helping to build a middle class overseas.

"We know that Chinese middle class really has a much broader view of the world and are looking to their political leadership for steady progress toward a more democratic society," Boswell said.

These face-to-face meetings are supplemented with visits back home, letters, phone calls, e-mails, opinion pieces in local papers and advertisements.

The agriculture industry and high-tech companies also are playing large roles in the lobbying. In one 48-hour period, Intel employees sent 5,000 computer-generated letters to lawmakers, urging them to support China trade.

"This is the biggest opportunity we have in the future of going from 0 to 60," said Michael Maibach, the company's vice president for government affairs, noting that China is the third-largest market for computer chips, personal computers, and cellular telephones.

_ Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.