GOP Using China Trade Tussle to Tweak Dems

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You didn't hear it from the Republicans, but there may have been a whole lot of wasted arm-twisting going on up on Capitol Hill this week. Pressure is being applied to both Democrats and Republicans as the House of Representatives nears a major vote over President Clinton's "legacy" attempt to get Permanent Normal Trade Relations status to China. It is, however, becoming more and more clear that many of those Republicans may have already decided to back the bill — but are holding back in declaring their decisions so as to make the White House squirm. The administration needs 218 votes to get this high-stakes measure passed, and as of late Tuesday, in-House vote counters reported that there are about 20 representatives who are still getting lobbyists and White House gift-bearers ringing up their inner offices. That there are about 80 undeclared votes has left both opponents — mostly Democrats who worry about American jobs and a few China-distrusting Republicans — and supporters (New Democrats, internationalist Republicans and pro-business types on both sides) saying the outcome could be in doubt right up to the moment that voting gets rolling.

Which is just the way Tom DeLay and his boys like it. "The GOP leaders want this passed as much as the White House does, but they're going to make the administration sweat as much as they possibly can," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. "This bill really gets to the cracks in the Democratic party, between the free-trade New Democrats and the liberal, labor Democrats. The harder Clinton leans on the pro-labor members to get those last few votes, the more prodding and promising he has to do, the wider those cracks become." Pressure-induced Oval Office bloopers, like announcing a national prime-time address Sunday on the issue, then canceling it when the laborites bristled, are just a bonus. Smart money is still on passage, if only because the President, the GOP leadership, Al Gore, George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan all agree on the measure (and because the political winds seem to be blowing in its favor). The final vote may not even be close once the tallies start to add up and the rats all flee to the winning side. But you didn't hear that from the Republicans.