Horse trading a risk in Senate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 12:00am

Fresh threats of delays to the China trade vote in the US Senate were emerging last night as political horse trading surrounding the historic bill continued.

With the vote almost certain to pass a bitterly divided House of Representatives, attention was already swinging towards the Senate, where elements of the Republican leadership could try to wring further concessions out of the Clinton administration.

'It's all getting a little ugly,' one Senate trade lobbyist said. 'Everyone knows just how much the White House wants this deal . . . that is the problem. We are not talking about a wholesale scuppering of Permanent Normal Trade Relations, rather more of a nagging delay.' The Senate had been expected to easily pass the bill in about two weeks. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is considering trying to hold off for some time, Senate sources said.

At issue are a slew of unrelated appropriation bills covering all manner of domestic issues such as education, health and welfare. The bills deal with the administration's projected budget surplus and have long been a battleground between the Republican-dominated Senate and the White House.

Senator Lott has said he will vote for the bill, but his support has been lukewarm. Last week he warned that passage through the Senate should not be taken for granted, adding there was considerable work to be done. 'There are no guarantees,' he said. While the Republican leadership is pushing for the bill and getting its own members into line as far as possible, they still have plenty of room for manoeuvre, lobbyists and congressional aides warn. Other complications could delay proceedings.

The House version is expected to include human rights and trade protection side laws. Unless the Senate passes exactly the same language, the two bodies will have to hold meetings to align their laws and then hold another vote.

The Senate leadership has stated it wants a clean bill but is still considering a range of proposals beyond the existing side laws. 'With all this tension and opposition, no one wants a second vote . . . that would be a very painful experience,' one lobbyist said.

Potential delays give opponents of the bill more time to redouble efforts to push their case. Labour groups protesting outside the Capitol building last night, fearing widespread American job losses and poor conditions on the mainland, were vowing to continue their fight even if the bill passed.

Human rights activists warn they are still deeply unhappy with the proposals before the House of Representatives. The bipartisan commission on human rights proposed to replace the scrutiny of an annual trade vote is largely toothless.

Its scope and possible action were dangerously undefined, some warned. 'It is more about providing a political fig-leaf allowing people to vote for the bill rather than any serious human rights review,' one prominent activist said.