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CHINA TRADE VOTE

Ideology No Guide in Figuring Outcome

Politics: California's congressional delegation favored the bill, 31 to 21. But liberal and conservative labels proved to be meaningless barometers.

May 25, 2000|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It was an odd sight: Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), a rock-solid conservative, agreeing with his ideological opposite, liberal Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles).

Both were among the majority of California House members who supported the China trade bill, a vote that transcended the partisan and geographic divides that so often split the delegation.

The argument that the trade deal will be a boon to the state economy and expose China to democratic principles swayed Californians on both sides of the political aisle, with the delegation backing the bill, 31 to 21.

The breakdown among the delegation's Republicans and Democrats reflected the overall House vote. California's GOP members overwhelmingly supported the bill, 20 to 4. The state's Democrats were more closely divided, with 17 voting against the bill, 11 for it.

Doolittle, known for his fervent opposition to communism, in years past had opposed the annual renewal of "most-favored" trade status for China. Why, then, did he vote for a measure making those ties permanent?

"I remain solidly against Communist China," he said after the vote. But, he added, the agreement provides for "the export of American ideas" to China.

Dixon was among several lawmakers who declined to reveal their positions until Wednesday's vote began.

"In the final analysis, it boils down to what was best for California and how do we best impact the Chinese culture," Dixon said.

He added that the delegation was "terribly torn" on the issue, in part because of the complexion of the state. "If you're from Silicon Valley, your emphasis may be on trade. If you're from South-Central Los Angeles, your emphasis may be on human rights."

Some longtime allies found themselves on different sides of the vote. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) supported the bill. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), his ideological and political compatriot for almost three decades, opposed it.

Waxman explained his vote as a matter of economic realism. "If we didn't give the permanent status . . . China would just go to our competitors" with its trade, he said.

A Berman aide said the congressman voted against the bill after he lost an effort to include a provision that would revoke trade relations if China attacked or blockaded Taiwan.

Conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and liberal Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) ended up on the same side--in opposition--but for dramatically different reasons.

During debate on the bill, Waters said it was hypocritical to expand trade relations with China while economic embargoes remain in place for a handful of other countries whose governments the United States opposes. "Why China and not Cuba?" she asked.

Rohrabacher objected that the bill would bolster China's Communist leaders. "We are setting the People's Liberation Army up in business."

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward), one of the House's most liberal members, voted against the measure and questioned the motives of those supporting it. He contended that they were kowtowing to the entertainment industry, Silicon Valley and other business interests--and thinking about campaign contributions for the fall elections.

"Big business has a lot more impact back here than the human rights issue," he said.

But most California lawmakers took a more tolerant view of the matter.

"I understand my colleagues on both sides of this issue," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego), a staunch conservative. "I had to fight an internal battle with myself to come to a conclusion."

Despite calling China a "rogue nation," he voted for the bill, saying that he hoped expanded trade with the United States would promote democracy in China.

Within the delegation, the debate leading up to the vote had all the elements of a Hollywood script.

There was star-studded lobbying, including a phone call on the eve of the vote from Arnold Schwarzenegger to an aide to Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) to urge support for the bill. Bono voted for it.

There were glamorous sets, like the real West Wing, where Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) was summoned to meet with President Clinton before the vote.

Clinton urged her to support the bill, but labor officials pushed her just as hard to oppose it, arguing it would hurt her working-class district.

She voted against it, saying, "I voted the way I felt my district needed me to vote."

She added: "I'm so glad it's over."

House Republican leaders cut a late-hour deal to bring Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) to their side.

Cox has been a consistent critic of China's human rights record and had voted against China trade in less consequential votes in years past.

But he persuaded leading Republicans to include in the final bill wording that specifies human rights issues to be monitored by U.S. officials. Plus, Cox said, he won assurances of more funding for pro-democracy efforts of Radio Free Asia.

"I am completely satisfied," he said.

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