China Bill Looking Good as Liberals See Light

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Some heavy hitters — some surprising, some not — are lining up behind Bill Clinton's precious China trade bill. On Wednesday George W. Bush went to Boeing and stood with the White House on the bill, declaring "our greatest export is freedom." And Alan Greenspan pitched in with economic arguments on Thursday. But after the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee both tipped overwhelmingly in favor of granting China permanent status as a normal trading partner, TIME Washington correspondent Jay Branegan says it's hard-core liberal Democrat Charles Rangel who may deserve much of the credit if the administration's cherished bill carries the day. "Rangel is the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, the most powerful committee in Congress," he says. "His record is strong enough with Big Labor for him to break with them on this. For him, it's part of his planned evolution into a more moderate, business-friendly figure, who's responsible enough to run that committee if the Democrats retake the House. But for other wavering Democrats, ones whose pro-union record isn't as long or as strong, it gives them the political cover to break with labor too."

The vote is not a done deal yet. Some two thirds of Democrats are still solidly against, and enough GOPers are hung up on human rights and nuclear secrets to keep the White House in suspense on whether it'll meet its target of 150 Republicans and 70 Democrats to ensure passage in the House next week. A suspense, says Branegan, that Republicans are in no hurry to dispel. "The White House believes that the Republican vote-counters are holding back their true numbers," he says. "The lower their count is, the more Demorats the White House has to lean on to get to 218. Those confrontations create bad blood, bruises, divisions. The Republicans love that." But behind the scenes, Republican hatchet man Tom DeLay is pushing his colleagues almost as hard as the White House is pushing Democrats. "When it came out recently that high tech was giving a lot more money to the Democrats, Republicans were appalled," Branegan says. "They want to show that they're the free-trade, pro-business party, and to make up that gap." The sight of a liberal lion like Chuck Rangel bucking labor and cozying up to big business is as good a wake-up call as any.