WASHINGTON -- Big business has spent millions lobbying the House of Representatives to approve Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China, in hopes of cashing in on the liberalized import rules China's Communist rulers must adopt when that nation joins the World Trade Organization.
The Clinton administration has worked furiously to squeeze out what will be at most a narrow victory in this week's House vote on China PNTR. The president has made it clear that in his mind, this may be the single most important congressional vote of the year.
Ironically, what may tip the balance is an alliance between two relatively unknown House members, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, whose friendship goes back to one of those much-scorned congressional ''junkets'' 16 years ago.
The work that Reps. Sander M. ''Sandy'' Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Doug Bereuter, a Nebraska Republican, have done is critical to smoothing the way for likely passage of the measure, according to administration officials and lobbyists on both sides of the issue.
Together, they have framed an ingenious proposal for monitoring human rights abuses in China, protecting against surges of Chinese imports and assuring that China lives up to its promise to open its markets to U.S. and other foreign goods. By arranging for some of these provisions to be included in the basic legislation and others to be approved in a companion bill, they have made it possible for wavering members--especially Democrats--to buck the determined opposition from labor and human rights groups, and cast what for many will be a difficult vote.
Beyond the importance of this issue, the Levin-Bereuter alliance demonstrates that cross-party cooperation is still occasionally possible even in a time of venomous partisanship. And it vindicates congressional customs which have fallen into undeserved disrepute.
Bereuter and Levin began working individually last autumn on ideas for a parallel proposal to China PNTR that would deal with the concerns of those opponents who were reluctant to assume Chinese good intentions on either trade or human rights.
What made it comfortable for them to merge their efforts was a friendship born on what Bereuter calls ''one of the most interesting CODELs ever.'' CODEL is Capitol Hill jargon for a congressional delegation--more familiarly known as a ''junket.'' Reporters love to write about frivolous ''junkets,'' and many of the members elected to the House in the 1990s shun these overseas trips for fear of being exposed as ''freeloaders.'' What the critics miss is that these delegations provide one of the very few occasions when members of the House, who shuttle from their committees to their offices when in Washington and then rush home to their districts, actually spend time talking with each other.
The CODEL on which Bereuter and Levin met was a 1984 bus trip through the cities of what was then communist-controlled Eastern Europe, from Berlin to Bucharest, with an air flight to Sofia at the end.
It was led by Florida Democrat Sam Gibbons, then chairman of the trade subcommittee, and it included three other influential senior members accustomed to working in bipartisan fashion: Republicans Barber Conable Jr. of New York and Bill Frenzel of Minnesota, and Democrat Jim Jones of Oklahoma. Levin and Bereuter were much junior to them, but also much admired by their elders.
''It was a great trip,'' Bereuter recalled. ''Frenzel led the singing and Conable recited endless Kipling verses. And we all came out of it fast friends. I saw Sam Gibbons (now retired, as are all the others but Levin and Bereuter) the other night, and I said, 'Sam, your trip has paid off on PNTR.'''
After meeting with initial skepticism from the Republican leadership, Bereuter and his key ally, Rep. David Dreier of California, enlisted GOP leaders behind the proposal he had worked out with Levin. Most Republicans favor PNTR for China, but some of them were not eager to make it easier for Democrats to come aboard and thus earn a claim on business' financial support in the coming campaign.
Levin faced an even tougher challenge. He comes from a labor state, and the active opposition to China PNTR is being led by House Democratic Whip David Bonior, whose Michigan district adjoins Levin's. But Levin told his Democratic colleagues that while ''the issues surrounding the China/WTO question are difficult ones and we should expect them to be controversial, we should avoid looking at the debate as 'Just say no' or 'Just say yes.'''
That is the voice of a real legislator, and the example set by Bereuter and Levin on this issue is one that Washington and the country need to see in this time of curdled partisanship.
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