Mass. congressman's plight on NAFTA symbolizes pinch Democrats face

September 02, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

LOWELL, Mass. -- Representative Martin T. Meehan is facing double jeopardy. Like dozens of other Democrats in Congress he is about to be damned if he does, and damned if he does not.

His dilemma: Whichever way he votes on the North American Trade Agreement he creates a no-win political scenario for himself.

"The time is coming to ultimately make what I think is a very tough decision," he said, pondering his predicament in his district office in this gracefully restored Victorian red-brick town.

"And there are enormous pressures on both sides of the issue," )) he said.

A "yes" vote will run against majority sentiment among his working-class constituents, anger organized labor, and could cost him re-election next year.

A "no" vote could help deliver a major defeat to President Bill Clinton whose program he basically supports as a fellow "new Democrat" and aspiring agent of change, and provide the

Republicans with political ammunition for his next campaign.

Mr. Meehan, 36, a freshman member of Congress from the 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts, does not today know which way he will vote on the treaty.

He remains torn between local and national priorities, personal and presidential politics, and even between old and new industries in his home district.

This puts him in the eye of the latest breaking political storm on Capitol Hill as he and the 80 or so other undecided Democrats are targeted for conversion by both sides on the issue.

"Being undecided can hurt more," he said. "It focuses more attention on you, and makes what you do seem more important."

The Clinton administration will introduce legislation next month to transform the United States, Canada and Mexico into the world's largest free-trade zone, with 360 million consumers and an annual joint economic output of $6.5 trillion. A vote on the treaty is expected later this year.

That will unleash the final bitter fight over whether the Unites States will gain or lose from the treaty. Opponents say the agreement will cost American jobs and damage the environment as pollution increases along the Mexican border.

Proponents counter that it will produce economic growth, create jobs and make the United States more competitive against Europe and Japan.

So many Democrats are expected to vote against the treaty that Mr. Clinton will have to rely on majority Republican support for approval. NAFTA was negotiated under President George Bush and refined under Mr. Clinton, who insisted on tougher labor and environmental safeguards.

"I don't have any qualms about voting for a Republican initiative like this, and I want the administration to succeed," said Mr. Meehan.

"But right after NAFTA we have health care coming. The administration is biting off an awful lot here," he said.

Mr. Meehan, in principle, is in favor of freer trade, but he worries about NAFTA's labor and environmental impact. His mail is running 4-to-1 against the treaty, but this is unlikely to be decisive.

He has already established a reputation as a maverick, which could be an advantage in a district known for its independence.

"The public has a perception that I am independent, a perception that at least I make a decision on what I think is right and I am not afraid to make a decision. I think I am in pretty good shape in my district," said the representative, who, in defiance of local majority opinion, voted for new taxes as part of the administration's deficit-reduction package.

The state's Republican governor, William F. Weld, is currently proposing a $207 million state tax cut to offset the impact of the federal budget.

"That was not a popular vote," said Mr. Meehan. "It's one thing to vote your conscience or independently, but I don't want to go against the wishes of the people I represent every time there is a major piece of national policy.

"I am not suggesting I am going to take a poll of my district [on NAFTA]. The question is, 'Am I going to vote against what I believe to be the wishes of my district?' "

If he listens to those traditional allies of the Democratic Party -- organized labor and the environmental groups -- he will do his constituents' bidding and vote the treaty down.

Joe Faherty, president of the state's AFL-CIO who is leading the pressure campaign on Mr. Meehan and other local Democrats, estimated that 160,000 jobs in Massachusetts -- many of them in the industrialized 5th District which is north of Boston -- would be "vulnerable" if NAFTA becomes law.

"We can compete with the Canadians. We can compete with the Japanese, the English and the Germans because their wages and benefits are better than ours. One thing we cannot do is compete with somebody who is making $4.50 a day and living in squalor," said Mr. Faherty, recently returned from a trip to Mexico.

Labor, he warned, would weigh Mr. Meehan's vote on NAFTA "very, very seriously," when it came to deciding whether to support him in his re-election campaign next November.

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