WASHINGTON -- President Clinton marshaled his most impressive show of force to date yesterday for a landmark China trade agreement, bringing two former presidents, four secretaries of state and a glittering array of power brokers from both parties to the White House to press Congress to make China a permanent normal trading partner.
The House is set to take up the trade bill the week of May 22, and the vote is too close to call. Leaving nothing to chance, Clinton brought a who's who of past White House leaders to Washington yesterday, ascending the podium in the White House's ceremonial East Room with Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III, Vice President Al Gore and his own secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright.
In the audience were scores of foreign policy and defense experts, offering what Gore called "the collected wisdom of the elder statesmen."
"If we vote for this, 10 years from now we will wonder why it was a hard fight," Clinton said of the China trade bill. "And if the Congress votes against it, they'll be kicking themselves in the rear 10 years from now because America will be paying the price."
The bill would extend normal trading privileges to China permanently, rather than on an annual basis, as the U.S. has done since 1980. Without it, the United States would forgo some of the trading benefits that China has promised once it joins the World Trade Organization as early as next year.
But the measure has taken on far greater significance -politically and diplomatically - than the narrow details of tariff barriers and intellectual property rights. Advocates, including some of the most powerful leaders of both parties, believe broadening the United States' trade relationships with China will open the world's largest nation to the ideals of democracy and freedom, while a rejection of the accord would set the two nations on a dangerously adversarial course.
Opponents -an unlikely coalition of labor unions, liberal Democrats, and staunch conservatives - say that depriving Congress of its annual vote on China's trade status would mean relinquishing a key lever on Chinese human rights and labor policies. A vote in favor of the measure, opponents say, would reward Chinese leaders just as they are cracking down on religious freedoms, threatening Taiwan and building up their military.
Though the vote may be the last significant legislative showdown of his presidency, Clinton has been criticized by free-trade advocates for doing too little to secure passage. Yesterday's White House political extravaganza was designed, in part, to answer that grumbling.
It was, as far as White House aides could determine, the first time that Ford, Carter and Clinton had been together at the White House since they met in 1993 for the successful final push for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The rhetoric on the China trade deal yesterday rivaled the passions that buffeted NAFTA. "A negative vote," Ford said, "would be catastrophic, disastrous."
"There are some issues that transcend partisan politics, issues that are as vital to this country as they are tough politically," said Baker, who served as treasury secretary under President Ronald Reagan and secretary of state under President George Bush. "Normalizing trade relations with China is one of those issues."
The event was clearly aimed at undecided members of Congress on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The most recent vote counts indicate that 161 members of the House say they support or are likely to support the trade bill, 57 votes short of a majority.
Rep. Cal Dooley, a California Democrat and bill supporter, predicted yesterday that the bill would muster more than the 218 votes needed, including about 80 from Democrats. But White House aides were making no such pronouncements, as Clinton sought to muscle and shame the House into passing the measure.
"What could we possibly be afraid of, based on the capacity of this country to grow its economy and improve its social condition?" the president asked. "If we can't meet this kind of challenge now, we are abandoning the legacy of the last 50 years, when previous presidents and previous Congresses have done things harder to do than this, in economic and social turbulence far greater than we face today."
The intractability of the accord's foes was on display just as clearly yesterday on Capitol Hill. Democratic opponents, led by House Democratic whip David E. Bonior, enlisted actress Goldie Hawn to decry China's record on human rights and free-trade treaty compliance.
Republican opponents hinted darkly of Chinese communist agents penetrating the White House, major U.S. businesses, trade organizations and farm groups to push for passage of permanent trade relations, even as they purchase advanced weaponry with dollars from trade with the United States.
But Clinton countered that opponents of the trade accord were strengthening the hand of Chinese hard-liners who benefit from tense U.S.-China relations.
Said Baker: "We will always need to be vigilant and firm, and we will often need to be tough as well. But we should never forget that the best way to find an enemy is to look for one."
Such rhetoric is welcome by free-trade advocates, who have grumbled for weeks that Clinton was not pulling his weight. Republican leaders, such as House GOP whip Tom DeLay and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, have pushed Clinton to deliver an Oval Office address to the nation or a speech to a joint session of Congress.
Democratic supporters have suggested that the president make his pitch not to the high-tech companies and farmers, who obviously stand to gain from freer trade with China, but to the factory workers who fear losing their jobs.
But White House aides fear a public relations debacle that could hurt their cause more than help it. The television networks could humiliate the president by refusing to air a prime-time address on a trade bill.
And a visit to a union hall sparked memories of last year's visit by Albright and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen to Ohio State University to sell the American people on intervention in Kosovo.
Albright and Cohen were practically shouted out of the arena by audience members protesting what they saw as U.S. military adventurism.