WASHINGTON — House Democrats defeated a bill Tuesday addressing China's trading practices, setting the stage for a showdown this week on the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
The bill was brought up under suspension of House rules that limited debate to 40 minutes without amendment and needed a two-thirds majority to pass. The vote was 240-186. GOP leaders took this route because the bill was expected to pass easily.
Republican leaders took the bill up in what was widely seen as a move to attract more votes to pass the controversial CAFTA, but Democrats, a large majority of whom oppose that trade accord's labor provisions, staged a protest.
Rep. Bill Thomas (R., Ca.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters after the vote that House leaders would likely bring the bill up again today under normal House rules, which only require a simple majority.
Rep. Phil English (R., Pa.) introduced the China bill, known as the U.S. Trade Rights Enforcement Act of 2005, which would allow U.S. companies to file trade cases against subsidized goods from China, among other provisions. The bill authorizes the application of U.S. countervailing duty laws to exports from nonmarket economies such as China. Under current law, companies are not allowed to file claims against nonmarket economies of illegally subsidized exports or goods "dumped" in the U.S. below cost.
Rep. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), said in a conference call with reporters that he believes the administration does not have the votes it needs to pass CAFTA in the House and is "trading everything imaginable, including today's vote on the China trade bill."
"The administration is doing a lot of dealing on issues unrelated to the Central American countries in an effort to get votes for the CAFTA," Cardin said. "That's not the way they should do it."
He said Democrats, who have introduced their own China trade legislation, rejected the English bill because it wasn't tough enough. Cardin said he hopes Republican leaders will allow amendments to the bill if it is brought up today and warned that most Democrats would not support it unless changes are made.House lawmakers traded barbs during Tuesday's debate, arguing over whether the China bill is simply a political maneuver to attract more votes for CAFTA or whether it is aimed at curtailing unfair trade from China.
"The argument from the other side that this issue is somehow tied to CAFTA is particularly striking and particularly odd" because of the Democratic cry against China, English said during the debate.
In defending his bill, English said it "takes the largest step toward strengthening the trade remedy laws in over 15 years." He called it a "comprehensive approach" designed to eliminate inequities in the trading relationship between the U.S. and other nonmarket economies, particularly China.
"It holds China and others accountable, and creates a tough mechanism to ensure compliance with trade agreements, and provides tools for us to gain compliance should our trading partners, particularly China, fail to do so," English said.
Thomas, who had stated he might have to use the China card to get the votes for CAFTA, said on the floor: "What we don't want to do is to engage in unnecessary bashing….This is a responsible bill."
He said the bill is a "compendium of a number of positions expressed in a bipartisan way by members of this House in regard to our trading partners."
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