WASHINGTON - The Senate passed legislation Tuesday to permanently liberalize trade with China, clearing the way for banks in one of the world's largest markets.

"For the first time China will be required to provide access to financial services providers," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said just before the Senate voted 83 to 15 to pass the measure.

The President supports the bill strongly and is expected to sign it soon.

The measure would boost trade in which banks of all sizes play a large part in financing, and would make it easier for multinational banks to set up operations in China.

"It's extraordinarily good news for the American economy, and anything that is good for the American economy is good for the financial services industry, because we finance the American economy," said Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade association for the largest financial services conglomerates.

He said that time will tell how fast banks start doing business directly in China. "Over the course of just a few years, I think large numbers will move in," he said.

In other congressional matters, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled today to consider community renewal and new markets legislation that would make banks and other investors eligible as early as next year for billions of dollars in tax credits for investing in poor inner-city and rural communities.

The House approved the White House-backed bill in July.

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