WASHINGTON -- Though complaining vigorously about China's human rights and weapons policies, the House once again went along with the president's policy of maintaining normal trade relations with the Beijing government.
The House voted 264-166 Wednesday against a resolution to revoke President Clinton's decision last month to extend for another year the trade status that gives China the same low tariffs enjoyed by almost all other American trading partners.
As in the past, opponents of normal trade cited China's human rights violations, its unfair trade practices and its proliferation of weapons. But this year they also came armed with allegations that Chinese officials tried to buy influence in U.S. elections and used American satellite technology to improve their missiles.
"The odor of money and influence-peddling is hanging over this debate," said Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., a leader in the move to deny China its current low tariff rates.
Supporters of the president's decision stressed that the United States can change China's disreputable policies only by staying engaged and using trade as a tool to promote reform. China has 23 percent of the world's population, Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., pointed out. "We can't ignore this simple reality, and we cannot and should not isolate China."
In announcing his decision, Clinton said trade "is a force for change in China, exposing China to our ideas and our ideals."
Under a 1974 law, the president must seek an annual waiver to extend normal trade status to totalitarian states. Since 1980 every president, both Republican and Democrat, has extended that status to China. Since China's military cracked down on the democracy movement in 1989, Congress has challenged the decision every year, always failing to revoke it.
Normal trade status gives a country an average tariff rate of about 4 percent, compared to at least 50 percent without that privilege. Only six countries -- Afghanistan, Laos, Cuba, Serbia, North Korea and Vietnam -- are denied normal trade status.
In an effort to reflect that reality, Congress this year voted to change the name from "most-favored-nation" trade status to "normal trade relations." The change was attached to an IRS reform bill that Clinton signed Wednesday.
"A rose is a rose is a rose, and in this case it's a thorn," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a vocal critic of the administration's China policy. She noted that the U.S. trade deficit with China has gone from $3.5 billion a decade ago to an estimated $63 billion this year, and "a country that large, an economy that large, that does not play by the rules is a danger to our own economy."
China, said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., is "the worst human rights abuser on the planet and a dangerous potential enemy for the United States."
But the enthusiasm of Congress for economic sanctions has cooled somewhat recently, as business leaders are telling lawmakers that they are losing out to European and Japanese rivals and farmers battered by low prices are saying they are losing crucial markets.
"A billion hungry Chinese does not lead to a stable democracy," said Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark. "The United States is well positioned to help feed their people while maintaining positive relations."
As usual the China debate created strange alliances. The anti-trade side brought together liberal human rights advocates and staunch anti-communists, the Christian right and labor unions. On the other side, the White House and internationalist Democrats joined big business in actively pushing engagement with China.