The legislation, which would end Congress' annual debate and certification of normal trade with China was approved by the House last May.
It has broad support in the Senate, but also faces amendments from senators who argue that permanent trade status should be tied to China improving its human rights and weapons proliferation records. Backers in turn stress that the approval of amendments would kill the bill this year, because there wouldn't be time for the House to consider any changes before this session of Congress ends next month.
On Thursday the Senate decisively rejected three proposed amendments. One, offered by Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., would have required the president to certify that the Chinese people were being given religious freedom; a second by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., mandated that the United States support the transfer of clean energy technology as part of energy projects with China; the third, by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., retained annual review of U.S.-China trade policy.
Wellstone, who also plans to offer amendments on China's human rights and labor rights, argued that ``we cannot award China with PNTR (permanent normal trade relations) while she continues to harass and jail people because of their religion and beliefs.'' He lost by a 69-28 vote.
Supporters of an amendment-free bill stressed that failure to pass the bill this year would have serious consequences for American farmers, businesses and workers.
China, as part of its soon-to-be entry into the World Trade Organization, has agreed to major cuts in the tariffs it imposes on foreign goods. The United States can benefit from those WTO-based cuts only if it gives China permanent normal trade status.
``We would be shooting ourselves in the foot, to say the least,'' Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in opposing the Hollings amendment to retain annual reviews. ``We Americans would be giving up all the market-opening benefits that China has agreed to.'' The Hollings measure went down 81-13.
The biggest hurdle remaining before final passage is a possible amendment by Sens. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., encouraging the imposition of economic sanctions when China, or another country or company, builds up weapons stockpiles.
Many senators supported the intent of the Thompson measure but opposed its attachment to the trade bill. Talks were held Thursday with the Senate leadership about the possibility of taking up the Thompson measure as a separate bill after the trade bill is passed, but there was some opposition and no agreement was reached, Senate sources said.
The bill is H.R. 4444.