WASHINGTON, May 9 -- Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and a host of prominent officials from previous administrations joined President Clinton on Tuesday in a show of support for the White House's landmark China trade deal, which is soon up for a suspenseful congressional vote.
"This is an enormously impressive meeting, but the vote's going to take place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue," Clinton said, referring to the looming House vote expected in the last week of May.
Among the political figures appearing were former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Alexander Haig and Warren Christopher. Nobel laureate economists Lawrence Klein and Robert Fogel also attended, along with a number of business and religious leaders.
Speakers focused mainly on the deal's likely impact on China's human rights, the linchpin of the political opposition's argument against the measure, which would increase U.S. access to Chinese markets, permanently normalize trading relations between the United States and China and pave the way for Beijing's accession into the World Trade Organization.
Carter, a fierce advocate of human rights and religious freedom as president and through his own humanitarian foundation, cited burgeoning democratic reforms that came in the wake of earlier trade agreements and said a congressional vote against the measure would undercut efforts to change China's policies to reflect international norms.
"There's no doubt in my mind that a negative vote on this issue in the Congress will be a serious setback and impediment for the further democratization, freedom and human rights in China," Carter said, acknowledging worrisome shortcoming in China's humanitarian record along with minor progress.
"What the Chinese have done has not been adequate in human rights or religious freedom measured by American standards," Carter said. "As a Baptist, I resent the fact that religious congregations of all kinds have to register with the government."
The deal's political opponents, led by organized labor, say an end to annual congressional approval of China's trade relations status with the United States would strip Washington of its ability to influence Chinese policy. Critics also fear a loss of American jobs to cheaper labor markets in China, which is routinely cited by the international community for its use of prison labor and other controversial economic practices.
The Clinton administration hoped the East Room event would sway undecided Democratic lawmakers, who are under pressure from politically powerful labor interests to vote down the measure when it moves through the House.
The White House is certain the measure will pass the Senate with the necessary two-thirds majority, but the outcome of the House vote is still unclear. The overwhelming majority of House Republicans support the trade deal. But Democrats, many facing re-election in districts where labor unions hold considerable political sway, remain divided, and the measure is in danger of falling short of a two-thirds House majority vote.
Tuesday's event was part of a massive White House effort to build political support for the trade pact. White House officials say they are steadily convincing key lawmakers to back the deal with evening pitch sessions at the White House, where Clinton and top cabinet officials have held dozens of meeting with more than 60 members of Congress since the beginning of the year.
Outside Washington, Clinton has also been calling on voters to press their representatives with phone calls and letters in support of the deal. On Friday Clinton plans to visit Minnesota and Ohio and make more such public appeals, White House officials said.
Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who has been a strong backer of the deal, also attended the White House ceremony, prompting the president to thank the former professional wrestler known as "The Body" before the audience of foreign policy luminaries.
"It's an American vote, you know," Clinton said. "It unites Henry Kissinger and Andy Young and Jesse Ventura -- and not at a wrestling match."
Former President George Bush was notably absent. Lockhart said the White House invited Bush, who has expressed support for the deal and once served as ambassador to China and a member of Congress. But the Houston-based ex-president who lost the presidency to Clinton said he had a scheduling conflict. Texas Governor George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, was also absent, though he too has endorsed the deal along with his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.