Sanders joins in push against China (VPR News)

Todd Zwillich

Senator Bernie Sanders has joined seven first-term Democrats in a push for actions against China.

They say Chinese trade policies are unfair and need to be corrected. Todd Zwillich reports.

(Zwillich) Sanders says the freshmen have been planning on this mission for months. Several days ago, they sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid. It accuses China of manipulating its currency, abusing workers' rights, and exporting unsafe products. The letter urges Reid to act quickly on the problems. Sanders says Reid listens when first-term Senators speak with one voice.

(Sanders) "It tells the leadership that those of us who are out in the real world campaigning most recently as the freshmen class, we have been exposed to what the American people all over this country are saying."

(Zwillich) Sanders says he frequently hears Vermonters complain about U.S. companies moving to China, where labor is cheap and environmental standards are low.

(Sanders) "We have lost in the state of Vermont 25 percent of our manufacturing jobs in the last seven years. Not all of them are connected to trade, but a number of them are."

(Zwillich) So the senators want legislation to punish China unless it stops controlling its currency and raises its labor standards. Last year, the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Finance Committee passed legislation aimed at breaking China's hold on its currency value. Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd of Connecticut says he'll pay more attention to the bill now that he's not running for President.

(Dodd) "There's a good possibility that we are going to try to bring together both bills. We haven't done that yet, but there's a good possibility that we'll get it done."

(Zwillich) But Jeffrey Bader, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, is doubtful. He says with a looming economic recession and an ongoing war, Congress doesn't have time for China.

(Bader) "Look, trade is not at the top of the economic agenda of the major members of Congress, so to get a bill through in an election year on an issue which is not at the top of agenda is very difficult."

(Zwillich) However, final passage of a bill may not be the point. Three years ago, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had pushed tough actions against China. They threatened to spike tariffs on Chinese products, if Beijing did not boost its currency value. Again, Jeffrey Bader.

(Bader) "Frankly speaking, their proposal never had a chance of passing. It was designed to send a message to the Chinese government."

(Zwillich) The Chinese government got the message and has nudged up its currency value about 15 percent since then.

(Bader) "It would be perfectly appropriate for Senators Schumer and Graham to say our approach has worked and we are proud and we are pleased."

(Zwillich) So if Sanders and other freshmen can get enough attention, it's possible both their leadership and the Chinese government will listen.

For VPR News, I'm Todd Zwillich on Capitol Hill.