The U.S. Senate on Wednesday rejected a controversial plan to impose sanctions on mainland China for its alleged role in weapons proliferation, clearing the way for final passage of President Bill Clinton’s landmark trade pact with Beijing after months of delay.
Vehemently opposed by the White House and pro-trade business groups, the nonproliferation amendment was seen as the last hurdle facing legislation that would grant permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to Beijing.
Lawmakers said the amendment’s defeat, by a vote of 65-32, puts the trade bill on fast-track to final approval later this week or early next week. “This clears the deck. It was the last hurdle,” said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, a vocal supporter of the trade bill, which won House of Representatives approval in May.
Once approved by the Senate and signed into law by the president, PNTR legislation would end the annual ritual of reviewing Beijing’s trade status and guarantee Chinese goods the same low-tariff access to the U.S. market as products from nearly every other nation.
In exchange for the benefits, Beijing has agreed to open a wide range of markets to U.S. businesses under the terms of an agreement setting the stage for Beijing to join the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO) later this year.
Supporters of the nonproliferation measure, proposed by Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and backed by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, argued that it was needed to keep Beijing arm dealers in check and prevent nations like Iran, Libya and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Mainland China is “engaging in activities that pose a mortal danger to the welfare of this country,” Thompson said in urging senators to support the amendment, which called on Washington to impose sanctions on Chinese firms that proliferate nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms accused Beijing of helping “tyrants and despots” acquire new weapons technology “which ultimately can be used to kill Americans.”
But Thompson faced stiff opposition after the White House and big business warned that the arms amendment could spark a backlash from Beijing, punish U.S. and European companies and doom permanent normal trade relations for the year.
“It would hurt America more than it would punish China,” said Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware said Thompson’s plan was a “serious foreign policy mistake.”
Ahead of the vote, Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue even suggested that senators who supported Thompson would face a backlash from business in the November election.
If Thompson’s or any other amendment was adopted by the Senate, the China trade bill would have to be sent back to a bitterly divided House. The House approved the trade bill after a heated battle between organized labor and big business, but is unlikely to do so again so close to the November election, many lawmakers said.
President Clinton has made passage of permanent normal trade relations for mainland China a top legislative priority for his final year in office.
There is little doubt over the outcome of the final Senate vote, which could come as early as Thursday.
According to a Reuters poll of the 100-member Senate, 69 lawmakers said they would support or were likely to support permanent normal trade relations, more than enough to override a vote-blocking filibuster and ensure final passage.
During Wednesday’s debate, the Senate rejected an amendment that would have helped U.S. companies and workers cope with increased imports from mainland China. The Senate also defeated a measure that would have set up a U.S. commission to press Beijing to eliminate trade in prisoners’ organs.
In a victory for the White House, Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona withdrew an amendment that would have prevented Beijing from enshrining in the WTO accession agreement its cherished “one China” policy, which considers Taiwan and the mainland as parts of a united China.
Kyl pulled the measure after meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and receiving a letter from Clinton. In the letter, dated Sept 12, Clinton said he reiterated to mainland Chinese President Jiang Zemin during their meeting in New York last week that “my administration is firmly committed to Taiwan’s accession to the WTO.”