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China Trade Bill Fallout

After the Republicans handed President Bill Clinton a big victory on the Red China trade bill, Capitol Hill pundits are hiding from reporters.

On May 24, the House voted 237 to 197 in favor of granting permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to China (formerly Most Favored Nation status) with labor lobbying fervently against the bill and big business and Clinton backing it.

If you missed the run-up to the vote, the mainstream media reported that their congressional sources insisted the vote would be too close to call.

It wasn't. Now, no one wants to venture an opinion on how the vote in the Senate will go.

Union leaders said they opposed the bill because they feared the legislation would encourage American companies to move factories and jobs to China.

Still, the American labor movement stands badly divided on political strategy after the vote in favor of the China trade bill.

Some union leaders and Democratic consultants say this split could set back Vice President Al Gore's electoral chances as well as Democratic hopes of regaining control of the House of Representatives.

Traditionally, unions have endorsed Democrats. But 73 Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

Those same pundits say that this schism could mean a boon for third par ty candidates such as Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and Green Party presidential hopeful Ralph Nader.


Angry about the trade bill, two of the nation's most powerful unions -- the Teamsters and the United Auto Work ers -- are showing little inclination to hug Gore, who backed the bill, and have threatened to cancel endorsements of several House Democrats who voted for it.

In contrast, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney is pushing the labor federation's 68 member unions to line up behind Gore and House Democrats in general to increase their prospects in November because -- well -- it's what unions do.

But Sweeney acknowledged that many of the labor group's 13 million members may be so upset about the China bill that they will sit out the November elections, a development that could hurt Gore worst in the industrial swing states of the Midwest.

The AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, Richard Trumka, referring to the trade fight, said: "It's going to make a difficult job more difficult."

Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the House Democratic whip -- who has repeatedly said the trade battle could hurt his party's chances -- reportedly consulted with labor leaders to try to rally union support behind the Demo crats, who need to pick up six seats to regain control of the House.

Teamsters' President James P. "Jim my" Hoffa and Stephen Yokich, the UAW's president, said Gore's support of the trade bill made it less likely that their unions would endorse him.

Yokich has even suggested his union might endorse Nader. Not that they think Nader would be elected. It would be a slap at the Democrats without endorsing a Republican.

Representatives from the Teamsters have hinted that the trade sellout may translate into votes for Buchanan.

Buchanan resolutely opposed the trade deal with China, saying it hands over a much needed bargaining chip with the communist nation and amounts to a sellout for hardworking American workers.


Saying their members felt betrayed, the Teamsters have canceled their endorsement of Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat who supported the trade bill. She won in 1998 with 55 percent of the vote, helped by heavy labor campaigning on her behalf.

The Teamsters and Auto Workers also said they would withdraw their endorsement of another Democrat who backed the bill -- Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, who is considered to have a safe seat.

The Steelworkers union is also reassessing support of several House Democrats.

Michael Mathis, the Teamsters' political director, said: "There will definitely be some districts where we go after people who voted wrongly."

The Teamsters have also warned that they might cancel endorsements of three other House Democrats: Tom Saw yer of Ohio, Diana DeGette of Colorado and Dennis Moore of Kansas.

Although Moore represents a rural area, labor unions played a major role in bringing him a narrow victory in 1998 after they saw a seat the Democrats could pick up.

Teamster leaders said labor should not reward Democrats who backed the trade bill even if the Republicans running in those districts are less friendly to labor.

Labor leaders say anger among rank-and-file members over the passage of the North American Free Trade Agree ment (NAFTA) in 1993 was a major reason the Democrats lost control of the House in 1994. Some labor leaders predict that dismay over the China fight could similarly help the Republicans this November.

Dissension among the Democrats was evident by some who countered that the support for the bill shown by President Clinton and those 73 House Democrats could win them contributions from corporations that favor "normal" trade relations with the Chicoms.

Since early 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, business has made $520 million in soft money and political action committee contributions to both parties, while labor unions have contributed $35 million.

Reps. Capps and Levin said they hoped to minimize any loss of labor support by continuing to work closely with unions.

"I know the people who beseeched me not to support the bill would be upset if I did," Rep. Capps said, acknowledging that her seat was vulnerable, even before the Teamsters withdrew support.


The Senate is embroiled in partisan bickering that is preventing senators from getting much accomplished.

Here's how the struggle plays out day after day:

Republicans bring up a bill. Demo crats, hiding in the shadows, prepare to launch amendments on gun control or other issues that GOP senators do not want to vote on. Republicans make a preemptive strike by moving immediately to cut off all such amendments.

Democrats cry foul, demand their rights and block further action. Repub licans bring up another bill, and the whole process starts over again.

The Senate has often fallen short of its textbook image as a great debating society, where courtly members address one another as "my distinguished colleague" and discuss lofty issues in erudite terms.

But its political polarization and partisan gamesmanship have intensified in recent years, especially since Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) took over as majority leader in 1996 and began trying to impose "order" on the often freewheeling chamber, enraging Democrats who saw this as an attempt to gag them and block their initiatives.

As Congress prepared to leave for a week-long Memorial Day recess, a date had not been set for senators to vote on the Red China trade deal.

Now's the time to put pressure on your elected officials. Tell them to oppose the China trade bill and vote against it.