WASHINGTON -- Pressure mounted yesterday on a small band of House Democrats who have yet to take a stand on the China trade bill, as President Clinton made personal appeals to save the top priority of his final year in office and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt announced his opposition.
Clinton, calling from Air Force One between appearances around the country, tried five times in vain over the past two days to reach Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, one of the three dozen uncommitted Democrats whose votes could decide the issue.
"They're really putting a full-court press on me," said Cardin, who has also heard in recent days from Vice President Al Gore and other administration officials. They contend passage of the legislation granting China permanent normal trade relations is essential to open lucrative Chinese markets to U.S. products.
Gephardt, the top House Democrat, who hopes to become House speaker next year, formally denounced the trade measure yesterday, calling it a "unilateral surrender of our nation's ability to influence Chinese policy" on human rights, labor rights and environmental protections.
In order to minimize divisiveness that could hurt the Democrats in November, Gephardt promised not to lobby his colleagues to vote with him, freeing them to follow the political dictates of their districts.
"Members make up their own minds on what they believe is the right thing to do," Gephardt said, speaking from his own district in St. Louis, where he gave his trade speech.
Even so, the opponents of the trade pact were cheered.
"Gephardt is looked to for guidance," said Peggy Taylor, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, which is leading the opposition. "This will help with wavering members, especially freshmen, who might be inclined our way but need more confidence."
As the China trade debate enters its final month before a make-or-break House vote, the outcome is expected to be decided by a handful of Democrats torn between the economic lure of expanded business opportunities and the fears of their traditional labor allies about the loss of American jobs.
Senate approval of the U.S. trading privileges that would facilitate China's entry into the World Trade Organization is considered assured. House Republicans, working largely in concert with the Clinton administration, are expected to produce about 150 of the 218 House votes required for passage.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui of California, a leading Democratic supporter of the trade bill, predicts he will be able deliver the votes of the 70 or so Democrats that will be needed. But he is short of firm commitments.
Among those likely to announce such a commitment soon is Southern Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, who has taken no public position on the trade bill but has told colleagues he has decided to support it.
Hoyer's backing for the measure is believed to be linked to his plans to run for the position of House whip if the Democrats reclaim the House in November. His chief opponent in that contest, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, is a leader of the opposition to the bill.
Two other members of the Maryland delegation have announced support for the bill: Republicans Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore.
Planning to vote against the measure are Republicans Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland, as well as Democrats Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County.
Cardin says he is holding out for concessions that might be included in a companion bill being brokered by Michigan Democrat Sander M. Levin.
Levin's proposal would create a commission to investigate human rights abuses and recommend sanctions. The Levin measure also seeks to create within the WTO an annual review of China's compliance with the trade pact.
Cardin is seeking additional provisions that would strengthen enforcement of existing laws against the dumping of cheap foreign steel on U.S. markets that make it difficult for American companies, such as Baltimore's Bethlehem Steel Corp., to compete.
When the president finally succeeds in connecting with Cardin, the Baltimore Democrat said he is hoping Clinton will promise to address his concerns.
"I don't expect guarantees, but I'd like to know he's trying," Cardin said.
Any concessions made to accommodate Democrats have to be crafted to avoid prompting Republicans to jump ship.
That was a problem the White House had in trying to address Gephardt's objections.
The Democratic leader sought legislation that would keep congressional pressure on Chinese human rights practices. As a device to retain such pressure, he would prefer to continue the annual renewal of normal trade relations of the past decade. Gephardt also wanted a stronger enforcement mechanism to ensure that China would honor WTO commitments to lower barriers.
Further, Gephardt wanted American companies to support a systematic "corporate code of conduct" that would govern their practices overseas.
But, he said, he couldn't get either side in the debate to agree to his conditions.
Gephardt's decision to oppose the trade bill came as no surprise to the White House. Administration officials said they were relieved that he promised not to work against them.