WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders, working feverishly to rescue their major joint initiative of this election year, are seeking a compromise on a China trade bill that could secure the votes of wavering House Democrats.
Support for the legislation -- to give China the same trading privileges granted to most nations -- is considered solid in the Senate and among a narrow majority of House Republicans. In return for these privileges, China has promised U.S. businesses and farmers lucrative new access to its huge markets.
But the proposal is expected to be opposed by a majority of House Democrats. Its fate is thought to rest with a small bloc of Democrats who generally support free trade but are also sympathetic to labor unions' complaints that China competes unfairly by exploiting workers and the environment and by denying human rights.
Torn between big business and big labor, these Democrats are looking for middle-ground agreement that might satisfy both important constituencies.
"We need to be able to take advantage of the access to China's markets while also keeping up the pressure on China" on human rights, labor rights and the environment, said Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat.
Levin has crafted the most detailed of several proposals for applying such pressure, which would be considered as parallel legislation with the trade bill. A key feature of his plan calls for the creation of a commission that would monitor human rights and labor rights in China and could recommend trade sanctions.
White House officials, who met with Levin to discuss the proposal last week, are "very interested," a spokesman said.
Republican leaders agree with the White House that changes in the trade bill must be resisted. But they are also increasingly open to the prospect of a side deal along the lines Levin is proposing.
At the moment, the voting lineup is extremely fluid because most lawmakers in both parties have yet to declare their positions. The trade bill is awaiting action by the House Ways and Means Committee and is not expected to come up for a full House vote until shortly before Memorial Day.
But the eight members of the Maryland delegation reflect the deep divisions within the ranks of both parties. Only two Marylanders have said they will support the trade bill, both of them Republicans: Reps. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore.
The measure's opponents include Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, both Republicans, and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, both Democrats.
Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland are among the group of pro-trade Democrats who are awaiting the outcome of negotiations over a side deal before they commit themselves.
"The president could lose this," Hoyer warned.
The trade bill would grant China the same permanent normal trading relations that the United States maintains with most other countries, and would facilitate China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
China has so much access to American markets that the United States buys about one-third of its exports. But under current law, Beijing's trade privileges must be renewed annually by Congress.
The Clinton administration negotiated a U.S.-China trade pact last year in which Beijing agreed to lower tariffs and other trade restrictions as a condition of membership in the WTO. "This is a 100-to-nothing deal for America when it comes to economic consequences," President Clinton said last week. "The United States doesn't lower any tariffs. -- We don't change any trade laws. We do nothing."
Many House members see it differently. They contend that by giving up their right to review China's trade privileges each year, they would be surrendering the only leverage they have to influence its trade practices and policies.
Lobbying on the measure, under way since January, is intensifying daily. CEOs of leading corporations are crossing paths on Capitol Hill with workers mobilized by unions, all of them making calls on wavering lawmakers.
Commerce Secretary William M. Daley and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman each are taking 15 House members on trips to China over the two-week Easter break. Clinton is talking by phone or meeting with lawmakers on the issue nearly every day.
As the vote draws closer, the administration expects lawmakers to become more specific about their conditions for supporting the bill. If the experience of past trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement is any guide, some lawmakers will demand favors and concessions that have nothing to do with trade.
"It's going to come down to raw politics," one official predicted.