China Trade Roils Democrats

Actors Amy Madigan, left, and her husband Ed Harris wave to photographers at the premiere of the film "Hollywoodland" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Democratic leaders are struggling to contain political damage from a split over China trade legislation, including one labor leader's suggestion that Ralph Nader would be preferable to Al Gore in the race for the White House.

On Tuesday, United Auto Workers President Stephen Yokich accused the vice president of siding with "multinational corporations against workers here and abroad" by supporting the China bill. Yokich made his comments on the eve of a hard-fought vote in the House on granting permanent normalized trade relations with China.

The bill is set for a vote late Wednesday afternoon in the U.S. House.

"It's time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates, such as (Green Party candidate) Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates," Yokich said.

Congressional sources said the vice president's campaign had sought to squelch Yokich's statement before it was released.

According to these sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Gore's campaign chairman Tony Coelho contacted House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and urged him to call Yokich. Also, the House Democratic Whip, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, was enlisted in the effort. Bonior spoke to Yokich, sources said, but the union leader was unmoved.

Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Gore is already feeling the heat of Yokich's assertion. Gore dodged a pro-labor questioner's challenge on the issue by saying "you're talking about hypotheticals that I'm not going to entertain ... I don't like to answer iffy questions."

The legislation at issue would give China permanent normal trade relations and end the current system of annual reviews. Debate began Tuesday on the House floor.

Clinton, Gore, and other supporters of the measure, such as the influential Alan Greenspan, say it would open Chinese markets to American investment and benefit United States security interests as well.

As both sides continued lobbying furiously, presumptive GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush met with House Republicans near the Capitol and urged them to support the bill, as he does.

Organized labor is a key Democratic constituency, and has worked closely with Gephardt in his efforts to win back the House. The AFL-CIO endorsed Gore early in the primary season, and helped him organize two critical early states, Iowa and New Hampshire.

The UAW declined to choose between Gore and Democratic rival Bill Bradley, but has yet to endorse Gore's candidacy. The Teamsters also has not endorsed Gore and, last month, Bush said he asked Teamsters President James Hoffa for the union's endorsement.