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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. May Stabilize China Trade

WASHINGTON -- The White House is shaking off House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt's decision to oppose normalized trade relations with China, predicting the bill will have the votes to pass once the administration makes its case to the party's rank-and-file lawmakers.

Majority Republicans are expected to support the bill by a comfortable margin next month, and White House spokesman Jake Siewart noted Monday night that Gephardt intended to "let Democrats in the caucus vote on this up or down on the merits."

"We think that given a chance to explain the merits of this deal to the Democratic caucus, that we'll secure enough support to approve the agreement,'' he added.

Gephardt is expected to announce his decision formally Wednesday in a speech in St. Louis, but Democrats familiar with his decision said Monday night he already had informed the White House of his planned opposition. They spoke on condition that they not be identified.

The issue is a politically perilous one for Gephardt and the Democrats, who are waging a strenuous battle to win back the House of Representatives in the fall elections.

Labor unions, environmental groups and some human-rights organizations do not want to give up what they view as leverage over China from the annual review process. Labor also fears that increased trade with China will hurt U.S. jobs.

But supporters claim that the measure will open vast Chinese markets to U.S. exporters and farmers.

The permanent status would ease China's entry into the World Trade Organization, the Geneva-based organization that sets rules for world trade.

The controversy sets up a potentially dangerous vote for Democratic lawmakers from swing districts, who might customarily rely on backing from the AFL-CIO labor federation to win difficult re-election campaigns.

Under Gephardt's leadership, Democrats also have made a strong effort to raise campaign donations from business leaders, particularly the high-tech industry, without weakening their traditional ties to organized labor.

Gephardt has been a critic of other trade bills in the past, arguing they didn't do enough to protect against the loss of domestic jobs or prevent environmental damage overseas. As a result, anything other than opposition by Gephardt to the China measure would have come as a surprise.

He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, for example, although it passed with a coalition of Republican and Democratic votes. A few years later, he led the opposition to a measure to strengthen presidential authority in negotiating trade deals abroad.

Until this year, Congress has reserved the right to make an annual decision on whether to extend trading rights to the Chinese that are currently extended to almost every U.S. trading partner. The pending legislation would put an end to that practice in favor of a permanent grant.

The Democratic leader is expected to argue the measure is not strong enough to justify surrendering the potential for the United States to influence China's policies on human rights, the environment and other areas, according to Democrats who are familiar with his plans.

His decision puts him at odds with President Bill Clinton; the two major party presidential nominees for the fall election, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush; and the senior Republican leadership in the House, including Speaker Dennis Hastert.

In opposing the legislation, though, Gephardt would side with the majority of his own Democratic caucus, as well as virtually the entire House Democratic leadership and organized labor.

One official said while Gephardt intends to announce his opposition to the measure, he is not expected to join in a full-fledged effort to defeat it, this official added.

In a recent speech, Gephardt emphasized support for several items on the high-tech industry's agenda, but sidestepped the issue of trade with China.

"I understand your concerns,'' he told a business group late last month. But he added that any legislation must provide "the right incentives for China to move toward the rule of law, to protect both personal and property rights.''

Representative Bob Matsui, a California Democrat who is a supporter of the bill, recently predicted that as many as 70 or 80 Democrats would wind up backing the measure.

By some estimates as many as 150 Republicans out of 222 in the House will vote for the measure.