The China trade bill looked like a sure thing. Business groups called it the biggest trade vote in a generation and poured millions into making sure the votes were there.
And after the bill roared through the House with a 40-vote margin in May, even critics wrote off any chance to stop it. But when Congress breaks for a summer of conventions and campaigning tomorrow, the bill that 70 senators were ready to pass - and President Clinton eager to sign - is still very much on the table in the upper chamber.
Senate majority leader Trent Lott, a prime supporter, made a high-risk call when he decided to push the vote to permanently normalize trade relations (PNTR) with China into fall. Last week, business groups and prominent Republicans warned that delay could introduce "complications" and risk passage of the measure.
On the other hand, delay of the China vote could also reap big political gains. It allowed Republicans to get popular tax cuts to the president's desk before next week's GOP convention. The anticipated vetos of repeal of the marriage penalty and the estate tax will play well in speeches from the podium in Philadelphia.
Delay of the China vote also leaves Democratic proponents of normalizing trade facing angry labor constituents in the November election. Democrats had also hoped to have some air between the divisive China vote and their own convention in Los Angeles. But the great unknown is how events in China will play out - and how opponents of the China bill regroup over the summer.
A new military provocation over Taiwan or televised crackdown on dissidents could change the climate for a fall vote, especially in an election year. Last week Senate Government Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee cited the recent successful test of a new Iranian medium-range ballistic missile as evidence of the need for new legislation on Chinese proliferation.
"It's not surprising that Iran has developed this capability over the last several years given the extensive assistance it has received from the People's Republic of China, which has provided Tehran with sensitive equipment and technological know-how," he said on July 17.
Before taking up China PNTR, Senate leaders must address this issue. Sens. Thompson and Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey are cosponsoring a bill on China nonproliferation that could derail PNTR. Unless the Senate passes PNTR cleanly, the bill will require another House vote, which supporters say is a riskier proposition a second time around and closer to elections.
Look who's joining hands
Already, the protracted China vote is mobilizing unlikely alliances. President Clinton and House Republicans passed PNTR over the heads of leading Democrats. More recently, Sens. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, two bookends on most ideological issues, both lambasted China PNTR at hearings on the issue last week and are working together to amend the bill when the Senate reconvenes.
They come together over concerns about the loss of US manufacturing jobs and human rights abuses in China.
For opponents of the China trade bill, the delayed vote has been an unexpected windfall. The extra weeks are giving Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, an advocacy group, a chance to pull together a report documenting the extent of pro-PNTR corporate lobbying. Lobbyists must file reports by July 1, but it takes weeks for them to be processed.
"The China PNTR vote was purchased by a combination of official campaign contributions, an ocean of slush money, promises to hold fundraisers within corporate sectors to get more money to bundle, and a boatload of paid advertising and lobbying," says Lori Wallach, director of the group. She estimates that the corporate campaign on PNTR will tally up to $80 million.
Revolt of the workers
Other opponents hope that a summer of reporting will produce more stories on the fallout of a China trade vote on American workers. "The longer the China issues stays out there, the more it reminds labor of the big differences they have with Al Gore," says Alan Tonelson, research fellow at the US Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation, which worked against PNTR.
Pro-PNTR businesses, for their part, are keeping up pressure on the Senate to vote quickly and vote yes. The Business Roundtable put at least $10 million into the PNTR effort, including targeted ads in 88 congressional districts, and they intend to persevere through the fall. "We recognize a vote sooner rather than later removed a lot of the potential pitfalls," says spokesman John Schachter. "We're hopeful none of the potential pitfalls will create a problem."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society