WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation to pressure China to let its currency rise faster, fanning the flames of a long-running dispute over trade and jobs.
The bill passed by a vote of 348-79. Both Democrats and Republicans, speaking just over a month ahead of mid-term elections in which the economy has taken center stage, said it was time to take action to support U.S. jobs.
The House vote, with about 100 Republicans joining Democrats to pass the bill, cleared the legislation for action in the Senate.
However, any vote in the Senate won’t come until after congressional elections on November 2 when the U.S. political landscape could be greatly changed, and odds have appeared to be against passage in the Senate.
The bill treats China’s exchange rate as a subsidy, opening the door to extra duties on Chinese goods entering the United States, some of which are already subject to special levies.
“China’s persistent manipulation of its currency contributes to the outsourcing of American jobs and poses a very serious problem that requires real action,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the bill would give President Barack Obama leverage in talks with China and “make it clear that if China wants a strong trading relationship with the United States, it must play by the rules.”
The Obama administration has not taken a stance on the bill and may hope that just the threat spurs more movement from China.
Before the House vote, China’s central bank reaffirmed its pledge to increase the flexibility of the yuan and improve the way it manages the exchange rate.
U.S. lawmakers have long brandished the sword of trade retaliation for what they see as China’s policy of undervaluing the yuan to give its exports an unfair advantage. But they have never sent the president any legislation to sign into law.
Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao talked about China’s currency and huge trade surplus with the United States on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last week.
“The reason that I‘m pushing China about their currency is because their currency is undervalued,” Obama said on Wednesday. “That’s not the main reason for our trade imbalance but it’s a contributing factor.”
Despite the yuan’s modest gains against the dollar since Beijing allowed more movement in June, International Monetary Fund economists estimate the yuan is 5-27 percent undervalued.
Representative Dave Camp, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said he voted for the bill “because it sends a clear signal to China that Congress’s patience is wearing out.”
Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican, said he feared China could retaliate against the bill by shutting its market to U.S. farm exports, offsetting any gains in U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Other lawmakers said the United States was already in a trade war with China and needed new tools to fight it.
And Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat who has been one of the loudest critics in Congress of China’s trade policy, said after the vote that he was ready to take up the cause in the Senate. “We plan to push our bill in the Senate when we return later this year,” he said.
China’s tight leash on the yuan is under intense scrutiny as countries around the world look to export their way back to economic health, raising concerns they will intentionally weaken their currencies to gain an edge.
Japan intervened this month to weaken the yen for the first time in six years.
The House move is certain to further roil relations with Beijing, which resents the criticism and says the decision about the speed of currency reforms is its alone.
China, the largest foreign buyer of U.S. government debt with holdings of nearly $847 billion as of July, also says its big trade surplus with the United States is due to Americans saving too little and no longer making the goods China sells.
While Obama has not taken a position on the legislation, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said lawmakers worked with the White House to ensure the bill did not violate WTO rules.
After holding the yuan steady against the dollar through the financial crisis, Beijing began to allow for an upward drift against the dollar on June 19.
Since then, the yuan has hit its highest level against the dollar in more than five years but, at just over 2 percent.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Congress two weeks ago that Washington would work with Group of 20 nations to push China for faster appreciation but several allies expressed reluctance to join the effort.
G20 leaders are set to meet in Seoul on November 10-11. That would give U.S. senators time to gauge any further moves by China before deciding what to do, with supporters pushing for a vote on the bill after the November 2 election.
The House bill allows the Commerce Department to treat “fundamentally undervalued currencies” as an illegal export subsidy so that U.S. companies can request a countervailing duty to offset China’s price advantage.
That is expected to encourage steel, paper and other import-sensitive U.S. industries to file more cases. The United States now has countervailing duties on less than 3 percent of its imports from China, which totaled $296 billion in 2009.
Some economists said they understood the politics of the debate but questioned whether the bill would bring back American jobs or prod China to move faster on currency reform.
“We consume a lot. The Chinese save a lot. We’re going to run a trade imbalance with them,” said Derek Scissors of the Heritage Foundation.
China and the United States have a difficult but vital diplomatic relationship, not least in dealing with nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.
In recent months, Washington and Beijing have also sparred over Chinese government procurement policies, Internet censorship, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and U.S. sympathy for the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Des Moines, Susan Cornwell and Emily Kaiser in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Leslie Adler