House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday dismissed a Senate bill that could punish China for undervaluing its currency, saying it was "pretty dangerous" for Congress to tell another country how to run its monetary policy.
Boehner's statement to reporters came a day after the Senate voted 79-19 to advance legislation making it easier to impose trade penalties against China for manipulating its currency to make Chinese goods cheaper and American exports more expensive.
Lawmakers have tried for the past six years to impose unilateral penalties on Beijing, and after Monday's vote, supporters said they had the momentum to get a bill through Congress this year.
"Here in the Senate we have heard the message loud and clear," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday. "We can't ignore blatant, unfair trade practices that put American workers at a disadvantage."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a chief sponsor of the bill, came to the Senate floor to respond to Boehner: "The only thing that would be dangerous would be to continue turning the other cheek while China continues its assault on US jobs," he said.
Most economists say the Chinese currency is undervalued by about 30 percent, with some estimates of up to 40 percent, giving Chinese exports a significant advantage against American competitors.
Schumer pointed to comments made on Capitol Hill Tuesday by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke expressing concern that "the Chinese currency policy is blocking what might be a more normal recovery process in the global economy."
Boehner, R-Ohio, said he understood the concerns, but was not sure that congressional action was the way to address the issue.
His position was not far from that of the Obama administration, which has said it is reviewing the Senate bill.
In general, the administration has said it is pressuring China to alter its exchange rate to better reflect market values but has cautioned against taking unilateral action. Many economists say China, the largest holder of U.S. debt, would respond with retaliatory measures against U.S. producers.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., also warned that unilateral action could backfire. "What we're really doing is pursuing the wrong issues in the name of trying to make ourselves look good back home."
But House Democrats accused Boehner of siding with the multinational companies that largely oppose the Senate bill and against the small businesses that are looking for relief from unfair Chinese competition.
Democrats cited estimates that forcing China to realign its currency could support 1.6 million American jobs.
"The House Republican leadership should not stand in the way of jobs and the American people," said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
"This is a lot of jobs we are talking about," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J. "I hope the Republicans will rethink their knee-jerk reaction."
They noted that a year ago the House passed a more narrowly drawn measure on a 348-79 vote and that a majority of Republicans supported it. They said a bill introduced by Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, has 225 co-sponsors, more than half the House, with 61 Republicans signed on.
Republicans "know that if it comes up for a vote that it will pass," Levin said.
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.
Information on the bill, S. 1619, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov