The last major barrier to smooth passage of the trade bill was cleared Wednesday when the Senate defeated an amendment toughening sanctions on China and other countries that traffic in weapons of mass destruction. The vote was 65-32 against it.
Even supporters of the sanctions proposal, offered by Sens. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., agreed that any change in the bill could kill it for the year because the House might not have the votes or the will to take it up again in the final days of this session. The House passed the bill by 40 votes last May.
At least a half-dozen amendments remained, on issues ranging from the business conduct of American companies in China to China's human rights record, but none appeared to pose a major threat. A final vote could come this week.
On Wednesday, the Senate defeated six other proposed amendments. The closest vote, 53-43, came on a measure by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., asking the president to urge China to cease forced abortions.
"Today we have cleared the final hurdle and moved one step closer to enacting one of the most important pieces of legislation in a generation for U.S.-China relations," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a chief sponsor of the trade bill. Many U.S. business groups in the past year have made the China trade bill their top legislative priority.
The United States must extend permanent normal trade status to China as part of China's impending membership in the World Trade Organization. If it does not, U.S. businesses would miss out on the significantly lower tariffs China has agreed to as part of its entry into the WTO, giving foreign competitors a major advantage in entering the expanding Chinese market.