WASHINGTON — With soft gray hair and a Mr. Rogers-like demeanor, Rep. Robert Matsui (D) of California is an unlikely arm-twister. These days, though, the sight of Mr. Matsui sauntering over is enough to send fellow Democrats ducking for cover.
Matsui is President Clinton's point man for persuading a vital group of two dozen wavering House Democrats to vote next week in favor of unfettered trade with China, a top priority for both the White House and US businesses.
That historic vote will determine whether America permanently grants China the same low tariffs most nations enjoy, a step toward freer trade that supporters hope will also spread democratic ideals. But Matsui faces passionate opposition from Democratic allies - labor unions, human-rights groups, environmentalists - and his party's House leaders. Even friends are starting to avoid him.
"Last week was particularly bad," Matsui sighs, recalling recent brushes on the House floor. "Gregory Meeks [then an undecided Democrat from New York] looks at me and says: 'I'm walking the other way.' " And other Democrats who oppose the China trade bill have attacked Matsui for "selling out."
"I can't wait for this to be over, seriously," says the 22-year House veteran from Sacramento, taking a break in the refuge of his Capitol Hill suite.
Indeed, listening to Matsui, one might wonder why he took on this unpopular job.
Back in January, when the Clinton administration asked him to lead the Democratic whipping effort, "I was reluctant," he admits. But Commerce Secretary William Daley, a friend of Matsui's, convinced him, Chicago-style. "Bill came in and said, 'Look, you need to do this,' " Matsui recalls.
So Matsui, a devoted free trader who helped lead a successful campaign in 1993 for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - but failed in 1998 to win fast-track negotiating authority - found himself again playing the role of top House trade lobbyist.
Making a list, checking it twice
It's a job Matsui approaches so methodically that he seems almost to have it down to a science.
"I have a list of about 25 [undecided Democrats] now, and I've memorized it," he says. "Right away when you hit the floor, if you have three votes [scheduled], you've got 30 minutes. In 30 minutes you can probably hit six members, if you do it right. Usually there are two or three members I definitely want to see, so I look for them first."
Matsui is systematic for a reason. He knows that unless he can round up about 10 more votes, passage by the House will be iffy. At present, roughly 60 House Democrats and an estimated 140 to 150 Republicans favor granting China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR). The bill is expected to easily pass the Senate.
In response to members' concerns over the bill, Matsui ticks off what he sees as the advantages:
Granting China PNTR will ensure US businesses fully benefit from tariff cuts and market-opening measures pledged by Beijing after its coming entry to the World Trade Organization, he says. As for US job losses - labor unions claim as many as 800,000 jobs are at risk - Matsui says the job displacement is the result of a dynamic economy and would happen with or without PNTR.
"Engaging" China, in turn, will make Beijing less of a security threat, as well as promoting personal freedoms for China's 1.2 billion people, he asserts.
Critical to bringing more undecided Democrats on board, Matsui says, is a bipartisan plan to link the PNTR bill to parallel legislation that would protect US industries from surges of Chinese exports and set up a commission to monitor human rights in China.
Tried and true tactics
Apart from the substantive arguments, Matsui has tried to win votes using good old-fashioned political pull: luncheons in a secluded back room of the ornate members' dining quarters, one-on-one meetings with Cabinet members, and flattering phone calls from Clinton and Mr. Gore.
Lastly, as the third-ranking Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Matsui is willing to sweeten "yes" votes by entertaining "legitimate" requests for federal assistance from some Democrats, such as Reps. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, who represent economically distressed areas. "Don't ask for a bridge," Matsui tells colleagues. "But if it's a question of a trade adjustment allowance ... that's a legitimate concern. That's what we're here for," he says.
Yet with American labor unions racheting up the pressure on undecided Democrats - even threatening to withdraw support for those backing PNTR - the influence of Matsui & Co. only goes so far.
Grass-roots union lobbying has played a key role in holding the vast majority of Democrats in line behind House minority whip David Bonior of Michigan, who has led the opposition to PNTR. House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri also says he will vote against the bill.
The business community, meanwhile, has made less headway in swaying Democratic ranks, despite a $10-million campaign backed by more than 1,200 firms to promote PNTR. Especially following the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, private-sector contributions to Democrats have fallen sharply, and businesses lack the close, symbiotic relationships with Democratic members that unions enjoy, Democratic sources say.
Winning some converts
Still, Matsui has chalked up some impressive victories.
This week, the House Ways and Means Committee - including its top Democrat, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York - approved the PNTR bill with a strong 34-4 vote. Earlier this month, Rep. Lois Capps (D) of California announced her support for the bill, despite a threat of retaliation by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
After months of getting to the office at 7:30 a.m. sharp, leaving after the last vote, and working weekends, Matsui is cautiously optimistic the effort will pay off. "I would bet [the bill] will go through," he says, pausing, "but I wouldn't bet my house on it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society