WASHINGTON (AP) _ In an extraordinary assembly of Republican and Democratic administrations spanning three decades, former Presidents Ford and Carter closed ranks Tuesday with President Clinton to lobby for a China trade deal that appears increasingly likely to pass.

``We want the voice of this meeting to echo across the country and to embrace the Congress,'' Clinton told more than 200 VIPs in the chandeliered East Room. ``I wish it weren't a fight, but it is.''

Two weeks before the House opens debate on granting China permanent trade benefits, supporters of the proposal were optimistic about winning. ``We're confident that we will get there on the votes,'' said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

To prevail, the bill requires 218 votes in the 435-member House if all members vote. Both sides say the vote will be extremely close. If the House passes the measure, Senate approval is likely.

Republican sponsors say they expect to deliver 140 to 145 votes _ but that Democrats must supply the rest. Democratic sponsors predict they will get 70-80 Democratic votes.

Among opponents, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., groused that the measure will pass because organized labor is ``soft-pedaling'' its criticism of Vice President Al Gore, whose presidential race has labor's support, while running attack ads against House Democrats who favor the measure.

Clinton collected support at the White House from a who's who of the foreign policy establishment from both parties.

There were four former secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, James Baker and Warren Christopher. Two former secretaries of defense: Robert McNamara and James Schlesinger. There were former ambassadors, national security advisers, Cabinet secretaries and scores of others from the worlds of politics, business and the religious community.

Kissinger, acknowledging the diverse views present, said some guests ``could not even charitably be described as colleagues.'' But he said, ``We are united on one proposition. Six American presidents, of both parties, have concluded that cooperative relations with China serve the national interest of the United States.''

In a strong voice, Ford, 86, warned of dire consequences if Congress denied permanent trade benefits to China _ part of an agreement in which Beijing pledged to lower trade barriers and tariffs on American goods in return for U.S. support for China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

``A negative vote in the House and-or the Senate would be catastrophic, disastrous to American agriculture, electronics, telecommunications, autos and countless other products and services,'' said Ford. ``A negative vote in the Congress would greatly assist our foreign competitors from Europe or Asia by giving them privileged access to China markets and, at the same time, exclude America's farm and factory production from the vast Chinese market.''

Carter, 75, addressed objections raised by labor and religious groups.

``China still has not measured up to the human rights and democracy standards and labor standards of America,'' said Carter. ``But 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.''

Former President Bush has also endorsed the trade package, but he did not attend the White House ceremony because of other commitments.

``If we vote for this, 10 years from now, we will wonder why this was a hard fight,'' Clinton said. ``And if the Congress votes against it, they'll be kicking themselves in the rear 10 years from now because America will be paying the price.''

Gore, whose commitment to the trade deal has been questioned, gave an unequivocal endorsement: ``It is right for American jobs. It is right for the cause of reform in China and I believe it will move us closer to the strong and stable world community we all seek to create.''

Looking out at the audience, Gore said Clinton had called upon ``the collected wisdom of the elder statesmen'' and that they ``have all come to the same conclusions. And I just think that a gathering like this ought to have such tremendous weight in the way people analyze issues.''

However, the top two House Democratic leaders oppose the legislation, asserting it will hurt U.S. jobs. Labor and human rights groups say an annual review of China's trading privileges gives the United States leverage over China's human rights, environmental, religious and labor policies.

Congressional opponents held a news conference with actress Goldie Hawn to say they still hope to defeat the measure, with House Democratic Whip David Bonior contending opponents were gaining strength among Democrats and Republicans.

``I have a problem with the human rights policy in China,'' Hawn said. ``I don't want to give them a bone any more.''

Bonior, D-Mich., criticized Carter for supporting the measure, suggesting the former president was undermining his own credentials as a human rights activist. ``He needs to stand with the people who are struggling to make China free and open,'' Bonior said.

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On the Net: White House working group on China: http://www.chinapntr.gov

AFL-CIO campaign to stop China trade bill: http://www.aflcio.org/publ/press2000/pr0222.htm