SCMP Wednesday, May 24, 2000

Victory in sight for trade bill

GREG TORODE in Washington and AGENCIES


Cautious optimism was building in Washington last night as the drive for Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for the mainland entered its final hours. With the vital congressional vote due today, wavering representatives were subjected to an advertising blitz as political horse-trading continued.

A poll by Reuters news agency suggested the vote would be 26 short of the 218 required to get the bill through the House of Representatives, but supporters in both parties said they could count on last-minute defections. "We've got the votes. We've won," said Democrat James Moran, who has helped count his party's support for the bill. The Democrats were aiming at 70 to 80 supporters, while Republican vote-counters said they were confident they would deliver nearly 150 votes, and possibly more.

Labour unions launched a lobbying blitz targeting undecided Democrats with warnings that passage of PNTR would undermine mainland human rights and cost jobs in the US.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt - the most high-profile Democrat against the vote - accepted the bill would probably pass and wanted it over with as quickly as possible, congressional sources said.

US President Bill Clinton, whose staff are now negotiating with wavering congressmen, said he was confident of "getting there". "We've got a lot of work to do . . . It's not over yet," he said.

Chris Jackson, director-general of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Washington, expressed new hope after talks with the SAR's lobbyists on Capitol Hill. "Barring last-minute political miscalculations, this vote will pass," Mr Jackson said in his strongest statement yet on PNTR's chances. "We are seeing some last-minute manoeuvring but the votes are stacking up."

Granting of PNTR will end the annual congressional review of the mainland's status and is the key benefit to Beijing in the historic Sino-US trade pact signed last November. Without it, Beijing would not have to extend the deal's market-opening and tariff-busting requirements to US firms once it enters the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

While some Democrats are wavering due to union pressure and fears over human rights and Beijing's willingness to comply with international standards, others were holding out for more specific reasons, given the pressures of election year. Two Texas congressmen were seeking administration help to bring a gas pipeline through their districts, while a Minnesota colleague was seeking handouts for iron ore workers.

The White House called reports of horse-trading "grossly exaggerated", saying the key to passage would be a human rights commission, proposed by Democratic Representative Sander Levin and Republican Doug Bereuter and backed by the House Republican leadership last week. Congress' Rules Committee was expected yesterday to add the monitoring plan to the PNTR legislation and to send the final bill to the floor for Wednesday's debate and vote.

However, wider attention was starting to shift to the vote in the Senate early next month. The Senate must pass the same bill in order to avoid a so-called conference between the two bodies to align the laws. This could force a second vote - and a possible delay.

Beijing made a final push, saying the bill should be unconditional in line with the "mutually beneficial" preconditions agreed to as part of its entry to the WTO. "We hope the US Congress can pass PNTR neatly and unconditionally as soon as possible," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said. "They should realise PNTR is not a favour granted to China by the US side, but is a matter of mutual benefit."