Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Iowa) was outraged when he heard the reports of nuclear espionage by China. So was Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). But these two independent-minded, free-trading Republicans from the heart of the Farm Belt, who agree on many things, will cancel each other's votes when the House decides Tuesday whether to continue normal trade relations with China for another year.
Ganske, who plans to vote for a resolution disapproving President Clinton's June 3 decision to keep China as a full trading partner, believes the United States is being shortchanged. China continues to export more to the United States than it imports, he said, and "we're not getting a fair deal."
Nussle, who intends to vote against the resolution, argues that the United States has more to gain than lose from additional trade with China. "We've got a lot of real problems with China," he said. "But if we decide not to trade with them, who do we hurt? We hurt ourselves . . . we hurt my farmers, my John Deere workers. China's going to buy these products someplace else."
The contrast between these two Iowa Republicans signals that the vote on China trade will likely turn more on traditional perceptions of economic advantage than on the latest grievance in U.S.-China relations -- giving a big advantage to those who would continue normal trade relations.
Annual votes on trade with China are required under 1974 trade legislation that used such votes to keep pressure on communist regimes to relax their emigration policies. Pro-trade forces usually have prevailed.
But two months ago, when a House committee issued a report documenting allegations of Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, many lawmakers figured that the spy furor might cause Congress to retaliate by punishing China on trade.
It evoked memories of a three-year struggle in the early 1990s, when, in the aftermath of Beijing's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Congress twice approved restrictions on U.S.-China trade and the Senate only narrowly sustained President George Bush's veto of the trade curbs in 1992.
But Republican outrage quickly turned from China to lax security by the United States at its nuclear labs, especially to what critics described as the Clinton administration's too-little, too-late response to early warning signs of trouble.
"The Chinese were doing their job; we should be doing ours," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.). "This is not to excuse China, but rather to condemn the lack of scrutiny by this administration."
This has left the China trade debate largely where it has been for most of the decade: focused on the pros and cons of liberalized trade with China and on a wide array of long-standing U.S. objections to China's behavior on human rights, export of weapons to "rogue" states, treatment of Tibet and fractious relations with Taiwan.
In light of this, supporters of continued trade normalization are cautiously optimistic that they will prevail in the House vote, although they concede it may be closer than the 264 to 166 tally last year. The House Ways and Means Committee already has gone on record against the latest disapproval resolution.
Beijing's recent crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual sect could revive strong congressional concerns over human rights practices, however, and possibly affect the outcome of the vote.
"The vote is likely to be closer than it was last year, but I don't think we'll lose a lot," said Dreier, who is chairman of the House Rules Committee and, like most Republican leaders, supports continuation of current trade relations with China.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who is sponsoring trade disapproval resolutions for China and Vietnam, figures it is an uphill struggle. "You've got some very powerful people making a lot of money off cheap labor, low taxes and lack of regulation in China, and wealthy and powerful interests that are exploiting the China market have a great deal of influence on Congress," he said.
The ultimate outcome is not in doubt because the Senate has signaled that it will reject the disapproval resolution, voting overwhelmingly last week against a move by the resolution's supporters to bring it to the floor for immediate action. Even if Congress approved it, Clinton would veto the measure, as Bush did seven years ago, and lawmakers say Congress could not muster the two-thirds majority to override a veto.
But the debate commands attention because it underscores the sharp divisions in Congress over trade and its effect on local economies. It also highlights the degree to which trade transcends other concerns, even high-voltage ones like the spy scandal.
This year's votes are also significant because of negotiations currently underway to admit China to the World Trade Organization, which would require a vote by Congress to make China's trade status permanent. A close vote this week could make the permanent-status vote more difficult and even impede the negotiations, some lawmakers argue.
According to key lawmakers, the main effect of the spy scandal was to reinforce the convictions of those who already wanted to impose new curbs on trade with China. Or, as Ganske put it: "What's the message we send to other countries? Steal our most prized weapons [secrets] and we'll reward you with favored trade relations. That sends a terrible message."
Nussle said he was "very troubled" by the spy scandal but was never really tempted to change his vote. For him, a "no" vote on China trade would send a message of U.S. vacillation to other U.S. trading partners, with disastrous results.
"Other countries will not see us as a reliable trading partner. . . . They are watching what we do with China because they worry about the predictability of their own trade with us."
Ideology has little to do with their disagreement. Nussle is more conservative than Ganske, and his northeastern Iowa district is more rural than Ganske's southwestern district, which includes Des Moines and Council Bluffs. They look at trade through different lenses. For Ganske, the vessel is half empty. For Nussle, it is half full.
When Ganske looks at China, he sees a bleak present: enormous trade barriers, including tariffs amounting to about 25 percent on what it buys from the United States, compared with 6 percent on what it sells. Seed dealers are leery of entering Chinese markets because they fear that China, with its "horrible track record on patents and copyrights," will steal the seeds' critical genetic material. The United States must get tough if it hopes to end these practices, he argues.
When Nussle looks at China, he sees a promising future, including Iowa pork on every Chinese plate. "China's increase in pork consumption last year equaled our total output of pork in Iowa for the year," he said. "The potential is tremendous."