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Jewish World Review April 18, 2000 /13 Nissan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Levin's 'bridge' key to China trade? -- WHETHER OR NOT demonstrators create turmoil on Washington streets this week, Congress seems to be moving toward approval of permanent normal trade status for China - thanks in part to a legislative bridge being constructed by Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.).

Serious, substantive and a strong pro-labor liberal, Levin has proposed a package of proposals that may persuade Democrats to support PNTR, despite heavy pressure from organized labor.

Vice President Al Gore also has begun calling Democrats on the issue and, aides say, will begin speaking out publicly before the House votes on PNTR in late May.

Levin, ranking member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, occupies a strategic middle ground in the trade debate, having supported some free trade measures and opposed others.

All along, he says, he has been an "activist internationalist" intent on "shaping" globalization so it raises workers' living standards. Levin says he opposes both "standing in the way" of global trade and "looking the other way" at its downsides.

Levin opposed the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement because it did not contain labor and environmental protections, helped write "301" laws that allow the United States to sanction foreign countries that erect non-tariff trade barriers and opposed fast-track trade authority in 1998.

All those positions were branded as "protectionist." On the other hand, he supported Congressional approval of the Uruguay Round trade pact and has recently supported most-favored-nation status for China on the grounds that commercial contact with the West might push China in the right direction politically.

Ultimately, he would like to see labor and environmental guarantees be a part of U.S. trade agreements and World Trade Organization standards - a position that's now Clinton administration policy.

This stance is anathema to classic free-traders, who argue that open commerce by itself will produce rising living standards and good social results. Levin calls this approach "just say yes" and argues that it's insufficient.

This year, however, he is mainly arguing against the "just say no" approach of organized labor, especially the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters union which recently picketed his district office.

The key idea in Levin's package - creation of a high-level executive-legislative commission to monitor Chinese behavior on human rights and trade and recommend rewards and penalties - answers labor's chief argument that PNTR deprives Congress of its annual opportunity to review Chinese conduct.

The commission is modeled on the so-called Helsinki commission, which monitored Soviet-bloc compliance with human rights agreements reached in the mid-1970s.

Other items Levin has recommended are annual WTO reviews of China, strengthening U.S. trade law enforcement and pursuit of labor standards in future trade agreements.

Pro-PNTR Democrats are briefing their colleagues this week on the Levin package, hoping to arm them with arguments to use when labor lobbyists come calling during the coming spring break.

"This is not a good week for people to declare themselves," said one Clinton administration official, referring to heavy union lobbying and demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Pro-PNTR forces are relying on a group of 10 or 12 uncommitted senior Members to work out a way to support PNTR and lead other Democrats into the "yes" column.

These senior swings include Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.), Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Martin Frost (Texas), Ed Markey (Mass.), Richard Neal (Mass.), Marty Meehan (Mass.), Henry Waxman (Calif.), Howard Berman (Calif.) and Sam Gejdenson (Conn.).

Hoyer, a former member of the Helsinki commission who has been working with Levin on his package, seems convinced that the bridge it provides is worth crossing.

Unlike Levin, Hoyer has opposed MFN for China in the past. "This is a different situation," he said in an interview. "We got nothing from annual MFN votes. Now, when China gets into the WTO, it will be giving up a lot of its ability to stonewall."

Others among the senior undecideds reportedly are looking for assurances on Taiwan, Africa trade and protection for industries heavily hit by imports - some of which can't be granted for fear of losing Republican votes.

But voter counters sound optimistic about getting a majority if anti-trade extremists cause trouble on the streets, it might help discredit them and aid PNTR.

"A little tear gas might be a good thing," one Republican said.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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