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Schumer says Obama should push China on trade

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Democrat in the Senate said on Thursday that President Barack Obama should back a bid to crack down on China's trade practices -- or get Beijing to take action on its own.

Charles Schumer, a member of the Democratic leadership, said he expects his bill, to pressure China to let its currency rise, will enjoy bipartisan support in the new Congress that convened this week and expressed hope it will become law.

"It's one of the things that's seriously on the table," Schumer told Reuters in a brief interview on Capitol Hill. "I'd like to see (Obama) either support our legislation or get China to do it on its own."

A version of the bill was approved last year in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it died in the Senate after the White House declined to make a push for it.

The legislation could face an even stiffer climb this year because the House is now controlled by Republicans, who have split on the issue.

Dan Ripp, an analyst with Bradley Woods, a private firm that tracks Washington issues for institutional investors, said he doubted Congress would pass a bill that could ratchet up the cost of Chinese imports by weakening the dollar against China's yuan.

"My hunch is that Republicans in the new Congress understand that forcing China to appreciate its currency would debase the U.S. dollar," Ripp said. "U.S. consumers would get slammed."

Schumer, however, voiced optimism a bill could pass.

"In the House, as in the Senate, there was strong bipartisan support (last year), and I would expect that the change in the House won't interfere with moving a bill" this year, Schumer said.

Obama will host his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, for a state visit on January 19, and China's trade surplus and currency controls are likely to loom large in their talks.

Schumer and many U.S. lawmakers contend Beijing deliberately undervalues its currency to give Chinese producers a trade advantage that threatens U.S. jobs and economic clout. Many lawmakers say the yuan is undervalued by at least 25 percent.

Schumer and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham were chief sponsors of a bill last year that would have threatened China imports with tariffs if it failed to let its currency rise.

The two senators have been pressing for legislation since 2005, when they introduced a bill that would have slapped a 27.5 percent tariff on Beijing's exports to the United States.

The bill didn't become law either. But it was seen as a warning that helped prompt China to raise the value of its currency by 21 percent during the next few years.

But beginning in mid-2008, China halted the appreciation. It began to let the yuan drift higher again in June and since then it has gained about 3 percent against the dollar, an increase Schumer said "isn't close to enough."

(Editing by Padraic Cassidy)