Pressure Builds on US Senate to Vote on China PactWith time running out in the US Congressional session, the White House and big business will ratchet up pressure on Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott next week to schedule a July vote on a landmark China trade bill before it gets bogged down in election politics.
The Republican-led Senate returns on Monday from its weeklong Independence Day recess, and despite weeks of lobbying by business, Lott has yet to set a date for legislation granting permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to China.
"We're picking up momentum on the issue of bringing it to a vote sooner rather than later," said Lonnie Taylor, chief lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce, which has threatened to reassess its financial support for lawmakers, Republican or Democrat, who hold up the trade bill.
There is little doubt over the outcome of the Senate vote once one is scheduled.
However, Lott said the Senate's first order of business would be a controversial sanctions measure aimed at curbing alleged Chinese weapon sales to Pakistan and other nations. Lott also wants the Senate to complete work on key spending bills to fund the federal government before turning to PNTR.
The delay has outraged business groups, the White House and pro-trade Senate Democrats, who fear Republicans will sideline the trade bill until just before the November election to maximize pressure on Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore.
Gore's support for PNTR has put him at odds with organised labour, a key Democratic constituency which fears closer ties with China will lead to massive US job losses.
But lobbyists were increasingly confident Lott would back down, clearing the way for a final vote on the trade bill before the Senate recesses for the month of August and the presidential and congressional races heat up.
Unlike the House, where two out of three Democrats voted against measure, the trade bill enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Senate. Sixty-three lawmakers in the 100-member Senate said in a recent Reuters poll that they would vote in favour of PNTR, enough to override a vote-blocking filibuster.
Once approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, PNTR would end the annual ritual of reviewing Beijing's trade status and guarantee Chinese goods the same low-tariff access to US markets as products from nearly every other nation.
In exchange for the trade benefits, China would open a wide range of markets, from agriculture to telecommunications, to US businesses under the terms of a landmark agreement signed in November 1999. That agreement was a major step in China's bid to join the World Trade Organisation.
But hurdles remain.
Despite a White House veto threat, Lott of Mississippi is pressing for passage next week of legislation that would require the United States to impose sanctions on the Chinese government or private companies if they help nations develop or acquire nuclear, chemical and other weapons.
Senate Democrats, led by Max Baucus of Montana, have threatened to hold up the measure until Lott schedules a vote on the trade bill. But Lott's spokesman said the Majority Leader had no "imminent" plans to announce a date on PNTR.
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