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Labor Mounts Late-Hour Attack on China Trade Bill

Legislation: With House vote expected today, unions appeal for votes against the measure because 'it's about jobs.'


WASHINGTON — California union leaders Art Pulaski and Miguel Contreras came to Capitol Hill for what may be remembered as labor's last stand on China trade.

On the eve of today's scheduled make-or-break vote in the House on granting China permanent normal trade relations, momentum was with the other side. Business lobbies were predicting victory. House leaders and the Clinton administration were trumpeting critical new endorsements.

Undaunted, the two Californians marched up to the second floor of the Rayburn House Office Building to plead for a no vote from one of the few representatives who remained undecided on the China trade bill, Democrat Julian C. Dixon of Los Angeles.

Their message at this late hour?

"It's about jobs," said Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. "And it's about justice and about freedom. We're talking about core values here."

Dixon was an opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. He is the sort of lawmaker that labor desperately needs on this vote. And yet he was holding out. "Some days I lean this way," the 11-term congressman said, "and other days I lean the other way. . . . This is probably the toughest vote I can recall." Dixon said that he doubted he would reveal his vote until he casts it.

Such was the struggle facing labor leaders as they sought, in meeting after meeting, phone call after phone call, to halt the flow of votes toward the China trade bill as the House opened debate on the measure Tuesday.

Labor leaders, going toe-to-toe with business lobbyists who also laid siege to the Capitol, acknowledged that they are the underdogs. But they insisted that they must take a stand against what they describe as a measure backed by "mammoth multinational corporations" prepared to export hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs to China.

And they warned members of Congress of the power that their rank and file still hold in an election year. "Remember us. Remember who we are and what we mean," said R. Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, during a news conference outside the Capitol.

Buffenbarger repeated labor's claim--disputed by President Clinton--that the trade bill would cost more than 800,000 U.S. jobs in the next decade.

John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters that he was talking repeatedly with undecided members of both parties--"all of them"--including conservative Republicans who rarely see eye-to-eye with labor. "We're hopeful we're going to convince them of the right way."

More Democrats Shift to Bill's Support

But a seemingly unstoppable tide of lawmakers was clearly headed toward what labor called the "wrong" way.

Among formerly undecided members who announced their support of the trade measure Tuesday were Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Texas), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).

Cox, an influential voice on U.S.-Sino policy, demanded--and won late Tuesday--language in the bill that details the scope of a proposed new federal commission monitoring human rights issues in China.

Even House Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (D-Texas) disclosed that he will vote for the trade bill. Frost is the highest-ranking Democrat to side with the administration on the China vote. Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) both oppose the measure, along with about two-thirds of the 211 House Democrats.

"This puts us right up to the edge of victory," said Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), who has been helping Clinton put together a fragile bipartisan majority for the bill.

House leaders, who opened floor debate on the measure late Tuesday, scheduled the vote for this afternoon--a sign of their confidence in the outcome--although aides said procedural hurdles conceivably could delay the vote.

An Associated Press survey found 205 members openly supporting the measure, well ahead of the 172 members in the opposition camp but still short of the 218-vote majority needed to clinch passage in the 435-member chamber.

The controversial legislation would end the congressional practice, followed for the last two decades, of reviewing China's trade status every year.

Last year, Beijing agreed to reduce tariffs and give the United States other trade benefits in a deal meant to help China enter the World Trade Organization, which polices international trade rules. The Clinton administration contends that Congress must do away with the annual China trade review to ensure that U.S. businesses get maximum benefit from those developments.

Democrats Stymied by China Issue

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