WASHINGTON -- Weeks after his victory over Iraq, President Bush has picked a fight with a different kind of adversary -- congressional opponents of U.S. trade policy.
At stake is the issue of whether to demolish trade barriers with Mexico, in an agreement similar to the one the Reagan administration negotiated with Canada. The result would be the world's largest free-trade zone, a tariff-free region encompassing all of North America that would, claimed Mr. Bush, energize and stimulate economies from the "Yukon to the Yucatan."
However, many lawmakers believe the president's dream will mostly benefit Mexico, as U.S. companies move thousands of manufacturing jobs into that country's low-wage, Third World economy. Others worry about the Mexican government's human rights record and argue that a free-trade accord should not be signed until Mexican industry has mended its polluting ways.
Both sides' arguments will be heard -- repeatedly -- in the coming weeks. U.S. officials say they can't negotiate a free-trade deal with Mexico until Congress promises not to alter the agreement later. The administration is expected to seek similar treatment for the on-again-off-again worldwide talks under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade aimed at liberalizing trade in agriculture, textiles and such non-manufacturing industries as financial services.
But this "fast-track" negotiating authority -- under which Congress agrees not to amend a trade agreement submitted for an up-or-down vote -- is just the sort of thing many lawmakers are wary of granting.
"We're loading the gun, handing it to the president and saying, 'Go ahead and shoot where you will,' " complained Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C. "That's just goofy."
As is often the case in Washington, the argument over fast-track authority is a fight over substance disguised as a struggle over procedure. South Carolina, for example, is home to an embattled textile industry, and Mr. Hollings is a strong advocate of high tariffs on many kinds of imported goods.
If Congress takes Mr. Hollings' advice and rejects fast-track authority for the talks, U.S. officials say that negotiations will be over before they have begun: Neither Mexican nor GATT negotiators would be willing to hammer out a treaty, knowing that Congress could later alter it to the United States' advantage.
However, for opponents of both the free-trade zone and the GATT accords, the battle over fast-track authority may present their best chance to derail the deals. Mr. Bush, his stature enhanced by success in the Middle East, has indicated that he will throw the full force of his office behind the drive to win congressional approval for the agreements, making them a key component of his "new world order."
An agreement with Mexico may pose a special problem for its opponents. Many border-state lawmakers, such as Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, ardently champion the policy. The influential chairman of the Senate Finance Committee contends that it will stimulate development on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border and lessen pressure on would-be immigrants to cross the Rio Grande in search of employment.
Supporters of a Mexican deal may find themselves with another powerful argument: A similar deal has already been negotiated with Canada.
"People will say, 'Why won't you do for Mexico what you've done for Canada?' It could start to look racist," said one staff aide to a prominent fast-track opponent.
Regardless of appearances, a fight is in the offing. Labor, environmental and human rights groups are trying to derail the Mexican talks by convincing Congress to deny fast-track authority. Opposition strategists concede that the administration is all but certain to win Senate approval but say the question is open in the House, where lawmakers tend to be more sensitive to any policy that could cost jobs.
"I think it could be a defining issue for Democratic congressional candidates and for the Democratic presidential candidate in 1992," said political consultant Frank Greer. "George Bush wants to ship your job overseas -- that's a pretty powerful statement. . . . That would have a lot of resonance with working people."
It is also a statement with which many Democrats are not entirely comfortable. Support for free-trade agreements tends to split along regional, rather than party, lines. Moreover, some Democrats who adopted a tough trade stance in past years appear reluctant to embrace similar rhetoric today.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., for example, built his unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign around a tough trade theme -- and got shellacked by editorialists, business leaders and many economists for it. Last week, Mr. Gephardt issued a tentative endorsement of a free-trade agreement with Mexico. However, he demanded that Mr. Bush include provisions to cut the tenfold wage disparity between U.S. and Mexican workers, stiffen Mexico's environmental laws and allow either side to back out of the agreement.
Without these additions, he threatened to help lead the charge against the administration's fast-track request.