WASHINGTON - By a lopsided margin, the Senate voted yesterday to grant permanent normal trade relations to China, responding to the promise of vastly expanded commerce for U.S. businesses.
The 83-15 vote sent to President Clinton's desk a measure that would widen China's enormous markets for American companies and products. It would end the annual review process that Congress had used for two decades to try to influence Beijing's policies on human rights, worker rights, the environment and other issues.
Culminating nine months of intensive lobbying and debate, the result handed Clinton a resounding victory on a top priority of his final year in office, and it marked a major step in the history of U.S.-Chinese relations.
The measure is also the most significant achievement of the year for Republican congressional leaders, who had worked closely with the Democratic administration to maneuver the trade bill safely through amid attacks from both the left and the right.
"We will find ... America has far more influence in China with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist," Clinton said after the vote. "The more China opens its markets to our products, the wider it opens its doors to economic freedom and the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people."
The eight Republicans and seven Democrats who voted against the bill formed an unusual assortment of labor backers, human rights advocates, abortion opponents, trade protectionists and lawmakers who pointed to Beijing's nuclear weapons proliferation.
"This is an exceptionally difficult decision for me," Mikulski told the Senate. But she said she wanted to maintain the practice of renewing China's trade status each year to "retain our right to exert pressure on China to improve on various fronts."
The potential benefits of the measure, Mikulski said, have been "significantly overstated."
Sarbanes raised similar concerns and warned that by helping to advance China's admission to the 135-member World Trade Organization, the United States is making it more difficult for the WTO to extend its influence beyond trade. The WTO establishes guidelines for global commerce.
"We know - I think with reasonable assurance - that if China joins the WTO it will be a vigorous opponent of U.S. efforts to have labor rights, human rights and environmental protection become part of WTO agreements," Sarbanes said.
China's admission to the WTO is expected to come formally later this year when the member nations cast their votes. The importance of the bill passed yesterday is that by virtue of dropping the annual review process, the United States will be able to capitalize on the lower trade barriers and other concessions that will follow China's membership in the WTO.
The American business community, particularly the high-tech industry, waged a relentless campaign on behalf of the measure, thirsting for access to one of the world's largest markets for, among other goods, personal computers, cell phones and semiconductors.
"Eighty-three votes is huge," said Dave McCurdy, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma who is now president of the Electronic Industries Association. Labor opposition, which had been nearly a fatal force in the House, "eroded" in the Senate, he said.
Working alongside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were advocates for American farmers, who are eager for the chance to boost their income by helping to feed China's growing population of more than 1 billion people.
"While there are no miracle answers to the problems our farmers are facing, this newly expanded trade relationship with China should be a powerful boost for farm exports and farm income," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said shortly after the vote.
Led by Clinton, the bill's supporters argued that the decision should be seen as a broad victory for America, because the measure requires China to make all of the trade concessions while the United States must make none except to give up its annual review of China's trade practices.
But opponents warned against the glitter of easy money and ridiculed White House claims that greater trade between the United States and China will advance the cause of democracy in that Communist-led nation.
"Some fool downtown must be popping gullible pills," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, referring to the White House. "The Chinese government is not some eager puppy, panting to please the United States or anybody else."
Like many labor advocates, Byrd said he is convinced that the chief effect of the trade agreement would be to encourage more U.S. corporations "to move operations to China to capitalize on low-wage production for export back here to the United States."
Senate approval of the China trade bill had long been expected. The real fight was in the House, where the measure passed in May, 237-197, after lengthy negotiations with wavering members.
Most dangerous in the Senate was the prospect of amendments being attached to the bill that would require a return trip through the House and probable defeat.
That threat vanished last week, however, after the Senate soundly rejected an amendment that would have imposed sanctions on Chinese companies caught exporting nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Many senators expressed interest in the amendment, offered by Sens. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, and Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, but said they didn't want to endanger the trade bill.
Thompson, who wanted to offer his amendment as a stand-alone proposal, was blocked by opponents through procedural maneuvers.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a supporter of the Thompson amendment, acknowledged the widespread ambivalence about the trade pact among senators of both parties as they approached the final vote.
"I know there are legitimate concerns about this legislation," Lott told the Senate before the vote. "But I think it is the right thing to do. It would be a tremendous mistake to ignore the advantages of the legislation - a billion people in China. These are markets that are otherwise not going to open to us."
The bill passed yesterday was identical to the House version, including a provision that won over some crucial members there.
The House provision would create a commission composed of administration and congressional representatives to monitor China's performance on human rights, including its adherence to international labor standards.
House language also seeks to prevent surges of Chinese imports and to ensure that China complies with all of the commitments it made in the agreement negotiated with the United States.
"With this vote today, the Senate joins the House in saying it is not enough to simply engage in a policy of global trade; we must also shape it," Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat who drafted that provision, said after the Senate vote. "This is a watershed in the way Congress considers trade agreements."