WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Backers of granting China permanent trade benefits expressed new optimism Tuesday that they will prevail in a tough showdown three weeks from now. President Clinton asserted that the trade bill's rejection would be ``very, very unwise and precarious.''
Supporters picked up a key swing vote, that of Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the first member of the House Democratic leadership to back the pact. Hoyer had previously been uncommitted.
With the House back from a two-week spring recess, supporters claimed that momentum was with them â€” or at least that Democratic defections to the opposition had slowed despite a heavy lobbying onslaught by labor unions and the disapproval of House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt.
But the administration clearly had little success with its plan to fly dozens of undecided House members to China during the spring recess to persuade them to support the bill.
In the end, only two â€” Reps. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas â€” took the trip, and both returned still undecided.
North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, a Republican who accompanied the two in an effort to persuade them to vote for the trade deal, said he had competition the entire time.
``They kept getting phone calls from the unions when we were over there,'' Schafer recalled. ``And the unions were saying, 'We gotta talk, don't make (decisions), and when you get back, we want our time with you.'''
Initially, the administration hoped that ``a lot of members would like to go,'' said Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., the Clinton administration's point man in the House on the legislation.
Still, Matsui predicted an overall victory when the bill is taken up the week of May 22 in the House, expecting the support of between 70 and 80 Democrats.
If Republican leaders can produce an expected 150-160 GOP votes, then the legislation â€” which needs 218 votes in the 435-member House â€” will pass, Matsui said. ``It's still going to be a tough battle. But I feel very good about where we are right now.''
``We are going to win,'' asserted U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky during a question session after a speech to the Council of the Americas.
But at the White House, spokesman Joe Lockhart cautioned against overoptimism. ``We're not there yet,'' he said.
Meanwhile Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., another previously undecided member, announced her support for the legislation. ``We must engage China at every opportunity,'' she said.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, told reporters Republicans were doing their part. ``We have picked up a couple of good votes on our side,'' he said, adding that ``the president seems to be working as well, so we are going to drive hard...''
The Senate, where the legislation has wide bipartisan support, is expected to take up the measure after the House vote.
The measure would grant China permanent normal trade relations, putting it on the same footing as nearly every other country with which the United States trades. Currently, China's trade status must be reviewed annually.
The bill would also ease China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Clinton presented one of his strongest cases yet for the legislation on Tuesday, during a speech before a conference of the Independent Insurance Agents of America.
``From a national security point of view, it would in my view be a very, very unwise and precarious move to say that the United States doesn't care whether they're part of the world community or not,'' the president said.
Hoyer, who co-chairs the House Democratic Steering Committee, is the highest-ranking House Democrat so far to support the measure.
``Despite our deep misgivings about the communist regime in Beijing and its egregious violations of human rights, we cannot ignore or attempt to isolate the most populous nation on earth,'' Hoyer said in a speech to a Johns Hopkins University audience.
Hoyer's announcement was cheered by sponsors of the U.S.-China trade bill, who hoped it would offset opposition expressed during the spring recess by Gephardt.
Despite optimism expressed by supporters, opponents were still promising a hard fight, however.
``Hoyer's announcement was not a surprise,'' said Fred Clarke, a spokesman for House Democratic Whip David Bonior, D-Mich., a leading opponent of the legislation.
Clarke said it was part of a ``traditional strategy'' of scheduling endorsements in the days leading up to a vote ``to make it look like there's momentum on the other side.''
``It's going to be a very close vote,'' Clarke said.
On the Net: White House working group on China: http://www.chinapntr.gov
AFL-CIO campaign to stop China trade bill: http://www.aflcio.org/publ/press2000/pr0222.htm
Business coalition for U.S.-China trade: http://www.business4chinatrade.org