WASHINGTON - Concluding a frenetic round of last-minute horse-trading, President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders appeared likely to score a narrow victory today in the House to grant China permanent normal trade relations.
Even so, organized labor, human rights advocates and other opponents of the bill lobbied intensely yesterday in hopes of pulling off an upset by gaining the votes of uncommitted members.
But as more and more members held news conferences to announce their support - often after meeting with Clinton administration officials or business leaders - the momentum seemed to be moving toward approval of the measure. The legislation would secure for American farms, factories and financial conglomerates broad new access to lucrative Chinese markets.
"I think it's over; they'll have the votes," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, referring to advocates of the measure. Cardin announced his support for the bill last week.
Refusing to yield, opponents contended that there were enough uncommitted lawmakers -about 20 - that they still had a chance to deny supporters the minimum 218 votes needed to pass the measure in the 435-member House.
"I'm continuing to focus on the undecideds of both parties," John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, which lobbied furiously against the measure, told reporters as the seven-month lobbying crusade moved into its final 24 hours.
"China has not lived up to the trade agreements we negotiated over the past eight or nine years," Sweeney said. "They don't play by the rules, and until they do they don't deserve" permanent normal trade relations.
Supporters pressed the case that the measure would produce enormous economic benefits for the United States - and expose China to America's values through its products.
Holding aloft a U.S.-made palm-size personal computer, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, declared it to be "hand-held free rights," referring to the free flow of information from sources worldwide that could be made instantly accessible to Chinese citizens. "That's what our interest in this bill is about."
Last night, the House began its debate on the measure, which would grant to China the trade status that applies to most other nations.
Under current law, China's access to U.S. markets must be renewed annually by Congress. Some lawmakers have used this exercise to denounce China's performance on human rights, environmental protections and labor rights, as well as trade activity.
In return for granting permanent normal trade relations to China, the United States would be able to take advantage of lower trade barriers negotiated by U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky last year as the conditions for China's entrance into the World Trade Organization.
The Senate is expected to approve the trade measure next month. But winning the House vote has been an uphill struggle made more difficult by the opposition of its top two Democrats, Reps. Richard A. Gephardt, the minority leader, and David E. Bonior, the minority whip, who expect two-thirds of their members to vote with them.
The momentum swings
Prospects for passage of the trade bill brightened early this week when the European Union concluded its own deal with China, completing one of the final steps required before China enters the WTO.
Rep. Tom Campbell, a California Republican, said he decided to abandon his previous opposition and vote for the bill because of the likelihood that other nations would take advantage of greater access to China's markets even if the United States did not.
Several previously undecided Democrats from Texas and New York announced their support for the measure yesterday after a persuasion campaign that included a trip to China and promises of help for their districts.
"My decision did not come easy," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat from El Paso, Texas, whose district took an economic beating after Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
What made his decision easier, Reyes said, was a promise from the Clinton administration to speed its decision on whether to approve a pipeline that would carry oil from El Paso to gasoline-thirsty markets on the East Coast.
Rep. Martin Frost, another Texas Democrat, announced his support for the bill after some reassuring words from the administration about defense work for Northrop Grumman, a major employer in his district.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, a New York Democrat, said he had sought assurances that investments in China would be matched by investments in communities in the United States.
Meeks said his decision to back the trade bill was reinforced by Clinton's agreement with House Speaker Dennis Hastert this week to support a package of targeted tax breaks and financial aid to impoverished communities. The Community Renewal and New Markets Agreement, announced yesterday at the White House, is believed to have solidified a dozen or more votes on the bill.
"We are the high-hurdle jumpers," Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, a Texas Democrat, said as he and several other previously uncommitted members announced their support for the legislation. "We hope we have gone over the hurdle that passed" the trade bill.
A critical turning point in winning support for the legislation came last week, when the Clinton administration and Republican leaders reached agreement on amendments sought mostly by Democrats, including Cardin.
Those amendments seek to protect human rights in China by setting up a commission to monitor the treatment of political dissidents, workers and others in China, and to recommend sanctions where there are abuses.
Another provision would protect U.S. producers, particularly in the steel industry, from surges of cheap Chinese imports.
As Clinton was passing out government favors, business lobbyists were doing their best to alert House members to the potential benefits of the bill.
"We're talking to all the undecided members, trying to find out what their questions are and connecting them with the right business person from their district to answer them," said Johanna Schneider of the Business Roundtable, which includes the nation's largest employers.
The Business Roundtable also passed out phone cards in 88 congressional districts, encouraging supporters of the trade bill to contact their representatives.
Meanwhile, Lori Wallach, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group that opposes the trade bill, was just as tirelessly dogging the 19 House members she believed were still within reach.
"You can tell who they are because they look so miserable," she said, referring to the lobbying pressure.