Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — The House vote on whether to grant China permanent normal trade relations status is two weeks away, and by all accounts it will be a cliffhanger.
It all comes down to a matter of wooing a couple of dozen undecided Democrats needed for passage, or defeat. To pass, the bill requires 218 votes in the 435-member House, where Republicans have a five-seat majority. Republican leadership has said they can deliver 140 to 145 votes, and Democrat supporters now count 70 to 80 votes in favor.
Almost daily, each side of the issue lays claim to one of the fence-sitting lawmakers.
Equally common are events highlighting an urgent need for PNTR or, alternatively, the danger of Congress giving up its annual ritual of renewing China’s access to lower U.S. tariffs. The anti-PNTR camp contends this annual vote allows lawmakers to weigh in on China’s poor human- and labor-rights record, keeping potential withdrawal of normal trade status as a cudgel. However, despite China’s continued transgressions, Congress has never followed through with this threat.
On Wednesday, the White House invited former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford to speak in favor of PNTR, underscoring a bipartisan push for the change.
Ford said a negative vote would be “catastrophic, disastrous” to U.S. exports, since China could deny the U.S. access to lower Chinese tariffs and market-opening rules as a WTO member by claiming discrimination. Carter said rejecting PNTR would be a “serous setback and impediment for the further democratization, freedom and human rights in China.”
Also on Wednesday, the anti-PNTR camp on Capitol Hill played host to actress Goldie Hawn, who is part of a Hollywood contingent concerned about China’s human rights records and how China’s WTO bid would affect U.S. jobs. Hawn met with anti-PNTR lawmakers in the office of Democratic Whip David Bonior (D., Mich.). Bonior is joined by the other top House Democrat, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D., Mo.), in opposing PNTR.
There are various proposals in the wings addressing human rights and labor concerns in China that aim to bring more votes to the PNTR side. Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.) and Rep. Doug Bereuter (R., Neb.) are acting as brokers for a plan released Tuesday that would create a commission to maintain an annual review of China’s human-rights conduct and to increase oversight of China’s compliance with trade rules.
“There are several avenues to help members feel comfortable” about voting, in an election year, for PNTR, said Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.
Hughes said last week’s 309-110 vote in the House on another trade bill, one to drop duties on select apparel produced in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean Basin, was a “good omen” for PNTR because it signals support for free trade.
“Things could still fall into place for China, too,” she said.
However, Ann Hoffman, legislative director for the apparel and textile union UNITE, discounted any momentum PNTR might have gleaned from the Africa-Caribbean Basin vote.
“I have not heard a single member explain their Africa vote in terms of China,” she said.
Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, said the pro-PNTR camp, like retailers who want to expand in China, “still has a long way to go” in securing enough votes.
“I expect it’s going to be a close vote,” he added.