WASHINGTON -- President Clinton spurned a proposal last spring to bring China into the World Trade Organization because he thought Congress might reject it. The trade agreement announced yesterday will put his fears to the test.
In a fight that could color the U.S. elections next year, many environmentalists, unions and human-rights advocates are urging Congress to refuse the favored-trading status that China needs for full membership in the WTO.
Though many political analysts suggest that big business and other free-trade advocates will ultimately win congressional blessing for China's WTO membership, the approval might not come until June, and it won't come without acrimonious debate.
"I know business is going to do a frontal assault on Congress," but approval isn't a sure thing, said Richard Steinberg, a trade specialist and assistant professor of law at UCLA. "This administration is obsessed with establishing a legacy almost without regard for what that legacy might be."
Details of the China agreement, which run into hundreds of pages, were not fully known yesterday. But critics, who have argued that Beijing has violated previous trade accords and the human rights of Chinese workers, promise to lobby against closer economic ties with China.
A taste of the debate to come was delivered yesterday by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who accused the Clinton administration of "prostrating itself in pursuit of a trade deal with a rogue nation that decorates itself with human rights abuses as if they were medals of honor."
Among those with much to lose politically over China's knock on the WTO's door is Vice President Al Gore, whose presidential bid needs the support of union leaders but who is also part of a Clinton administration that executed the deal.
Chris Lehane, a Gore spokesman, called the WTO deal "good news for American farmers and American workers" that also "takes strong steps to protect against unfair trade practices."
Congressional approval isn't abso lutely necessary for China's entry into the WTO. Membership is voted on by the 134 members of the organization. But without Congress' approval of permanent "normal trading relations" between the United States and China, analysts said, Beijing would lack a key advantage of WTO membership and might even decline to join.
The actual issue on Capitol Hill is whether Congress will repeal a law that requires annual renewal of China's Most Favored Nation trade status based on its human rights record. That law conflicts with WTO rules, analysts say.
Yesterday, some congressional Democrats were promising a hard fight to retain it.
"The last time I looked, the United States had a $61 billion trade deficit with China," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat whose district includes many jobs linked to the auto industry.
"I'm not going to trade workers in our country who made a living wage for voiceless women in China whose government cares not a whit for their economic advancement," Kaptur said.
While China seeks WTO entry as soon as possible, some lobbyists say Congress could procrastinate on the new agreement until June, when China's current trading privileges expire.
"I can't see them taking China trade as a priority," said Bob Vastine, president of the Coalition of Service Industries, a business lobby. The political inertia appears to be pulling toward June, he said.
But some political specialists suggest that Congress might tackle the issue soon, hoping to dispose of an explosive issue well before the elections in November.
"I think they're going to fuss and fume a lot and end up granting permanent normal trade relations with China," said Brink Lindsey, a trade specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute, which supports WTO membership for China. "There's no sane alternative."
Still, there is substantial opposition to better economic relations with China; last summer, 170 House members voted against renewing Most Favored Nation trade status; 260 voted for it.
"If it's the kind of deal we had in April, I think Congress will pass it," said Peter Morici, professor of international business at the University of Maryland. "If it's substantially less of a deal, this will be viewed as another example of Clinton trying to make everyone happy."
Among presidential candidates, Patrick J. Buchanan, who is seeking the Reform Party nomination, is the fiercest opponent of a WTO deal with China and freer trade generally.
Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Bradley favor free trade.
Bush called the news from Beijing "welcome news" but reserved final judgment until he sees the details.