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Senate begins debate on nuclear weapons amendment to China trade bill

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Senate began debate Monday on an amendment that would require the president to penalize China and other countries if the United States finds they are selling nuclear material or weapons of mass destruction -- a move that some lawmakers fear could derail passage of normalized trade relations with the Asian superpower.

US/China trade

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee, and Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-New Jersey, would set up an annual presidential review of weapons proliferation in "key supplier countries," including China, and force the United States to sanction the countries determined to be "proliferators."

Thompson and other amendment supporters argue the threat of penalization for weapons sales, particularly to so-called "nations of concern" or other questionable sources, is essential before the United States grants China permanent trade status.

Opponents of the measure fall into two camps. Some senators oppose it for substantive reasons, saying it sends the wrong signal and would alienate the Chinese at a time when engagement is crucial.

Other senators will vote against the amendment because it will change the underlying trade bill that passed in the House of Representatives. This would mean the House would have to cast another wrenching vote on the measure, as it did in May when it passed its bill 237-197 after an intensive lobbying effort by the Clinton administration.


Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, has warned if the amendment on Chinese non-proliferation passes, "I would say that it would probably mean the end of PNTR for the year," referring to the acronym for 'permanent normal trade relations.'

However, a spokeswoman for Daschle said Monday he was confident he had the votes to defeat the amendment. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a key supporter of the PNTR bill, also has lobbyists working senators' offices to make sure Thompson's measure is defeated.

"We have tons of people up there, it's all lobbying all the time," said Linda Rozette, a Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman.

"[Chamber President] Tom Donahue has made it clear this is one of our top priorities and will be part of the decision-making process for how we spend our money on the campaign trail," said Rozette, whose organization generally helps Republican candidates.

Although a vote on the amendment could come as early as Tuesday, an aide to one of the sponsors said they are considering pulling the measure after considerable debate to avoid forcing colleagues to take a tough vote.

Granting permanent trade relations to China has strong support in the Senate -- more than 70 senators have said they will vote for it.


Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, a supporter of both PNTR and the Chinese non-proliferation measure, tried several times to offer the measure independently, but was blocked.

"The opponents of the bill have blocked every effort I've made, sometimes even with the support of Senator Daschle, to try to come up with a way to handle it separately... We have not succeeded. So we're going forward," Lott told CNN's Late Edition.

Opponents of the bill are offering other amendments on issues from human rights to workers' rights, but none is expected to pass.

Supporters of the trade legislation from the White House to the business community urged Lott to bring the measure to the Senate floor before the August recess, but he refused, saying the Senate needed to first complete work on its 11 remaining spending measures.

Many in the Republican caucus had also urged Lott to wait until the run-up to the election to take up the measure because it divides the White House and organized labor, key to mobilizing votes for Democrats.

The White House counts the bill's passage as one of President Clinton's top priorities before he leaves office.




Monday, September 11, 2000


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