Congress votes this week whether to give China the same trading status it gives to most other countries, so-called Permanent Normal Trade Relations, or, as its usually called inside the beltway, PNTR.
Few issues of any kind seize Washington the way PNTR has. Thats especially so with economic issues, as they come laden with technical jargon and terms most people are unfamiliar with.
In the case of PNTR, it seems everyone has an opinion and the pros and cons are being debated everywhere, from the White House (pro) to the AFL-CIO (con). Party lines are crossed all over town.
President Clinton had former President Gerald Ford and former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker share a White House platform with him as he drummed up support to give China the normal trading status it desperately wants. Even House Majority Whip, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-TX, ordinarily a bitter foe of the president, is with him on PNTR.
The flip side shows the top two Democrats in the House leadership, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Minority Whip David Bonior, leading a large number of House Democrats opposed to PNTR.
"No Blank Check for China" says a headline on a flyer put out by the AFL-CIO. Big labor unions are helping to spearhead the effort to deny China PNTR. Opponents contend that giving PNTR to China will lessen the pressure on the worlds most populous country to change its record on human rights, the use of prison labor, and, most of all, that PNTR will mean jobs lost in the U.S. to low-wage workers in China.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls the upcoming vote "the single most important foreign policy vote" facing Congress. The President and Albright have been joined by a coalition of big business, non-governmental humanitarian and environmental organizations. CARE, Feed the Children, World Wildlife Fund and Zero Population Growth have joined with At&T, Citigroup, & Daimler Chrysler.
When she shared the podium with Treasury Secretary Summers before the U.S. Global Leadership coalition, Albright told the group PNTR will help the U.S. "reduce barriers to trade" and increase "incentives for cooperation."
The bottom line is that China is poised to join the World Trade Organization and if the U.S. does not grant PNTR, other countries around the world will reap the economic benefits that come with normal trading relations. Foreign companies will get lucrative contracts with China and American companies will not.
In a world where "globalization" has become a buzzword, the administration is betting that including China in the worlds economic system as the best way to change it. But those who represent big labor say it wil be on the backs of American workers.
The word on Capitol Hill: this vote is too close to call.