Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are eyeing a new strategy to move a bill to pressure China to raise its currency’s value, preserving some hope of passing a measure that would put pressure on the White House, which opposes the measure.
Though passing the legislation in the lame duck remains a long shot, Schumer and Graham are working to get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s approval to attempt to pass a House-passed version of the measure by unanimous consent, Senate aides said.
If successful, that effort would put President Obama in the difficult position of having to decide whether to veto a measure with great populist appeal but which is in direct conflict with his foreign policy goals. Administration officials have previously worked to head off such a situation by lobbying against Senate action on the measure.
Schumer, who has sought action on a version of the bill co-sponsored with Graham and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, for much of the year, is still asking Reid for floor time for the Senate measure. But Senate aides said Reid is unlikely to agree to carve out time in the already-overbooked, post-Thanksgiving lame-duck period.
Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said the bill is “on the list” of bills Democrats would like to consider in the lame duck, but said action on many of those will be difficult in the limited time left this year. Reid has not said how long the Senate will stay in session, but up to three weeks of work in December appear possible.
With floor time hard to find, Graham and Schumer now see an attempt to win a unanimous consent of the House-passed version of the bill as a fall-back option that would save time, two Senate aides said.
Though aides said it is hard to handicap the chances of success for a UC request, the opportunity for any senator to object makes passage difficult. The White House would likely oppose the effort and opposition could come from senators concerned about preserving healthy relations with China, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee members.
The House bill, which passed the lower chamber at the height of campaign season, differs from the Senate measure. Originally sponsored by Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, it is intended to make currency value a key component in assessing tariffs and allows the Commerce Department to assess countervailing duties on imported goods from countries with undervalued currency. While it is broadly written, the legislation is clearly targeted at China.
Labor unions and small manufacturers are also stepping up pressure for action on the China currency issue. The AFL-CIO and The Fair Currency Coalition, an association of small and medium-sized steel manufacturers, released separate statements this week pushing the Senate to take up legislation to combat what they call the artificially low value of the Yuan, which they believe gives Chinese goods an unfair cost advantage.
The White House has not been receptive to Democrats’ claim that the bill would increase pressure on the Chinese. Administration officials would rather work with China in large, multilateral negotiating environments like the G-20 and World Trade Organization.
“They really don’t want to be on board as going after China on this,” said Albert Keidel, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Program. “The House vote was one of self-inoculation before the elections to look hard on China, but the White House doesn’t want to have to be on record supporting that.”
Any legislation that pushes for the U.S. to unilaterally punish China could give Chinese leaders a reason to retaliate. Multilateral negotiations diffuse one-on-one tensions between the two countries and make it more difficult for China to justify direct attacks on U.S. exports.
The U.S Chamber of Commerce and most multinational corporations are strongly opposed to the bill. Large companies are likely to be hit the hardest if U.S.-China relations deteriorate.
The Obama Administration has been unwilling to address the currency legislation directly. Press secretary Robert Gibbs dodged questions about the bill when it passed.
“I don't know the degree to which inside of here that legislation has been evaluated,” Gibbs told reporters in September.