A fast-track problem slows down Democrats

September 19, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton says the decision about whether he wins "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements is a matter of deciding whether "to advance or retreat." In political terms, however, it is far more complex.

The president can make a persuasive case for being given the same flexibility Congress has given every president since Gerald R. Ford and almost routinely approved for George Bush six years ago. The mind boggles at the prospect of Congress picking apart every trade agreement clause by clause rather than being required to vote either acceptance or rejection, as fast-track provides.

But the issue has evoked a reaction from labor and environmental groups intense enough to threaten serious breaches within the Democratic Party, divisions that could affect the midterm election for Congress next year and the presidential campaign that begins immediately thereafter.

The principal antagonist to the president is the AFL-CIO, which has committed an initial $1 million for television commercials running in the home districts of 13 members of Congress and radio commercials all across California. John J. Sweeney, president of the federation, has threatened to spend whatever it takes.

The ostensible concern of Big Labor and its allies in Congress, almost all liberal Democrats, is that fast-track treaties will not require trading partners to meet decent standards to protect the environment and the rights of their workers.

But the core issue is the fear that also motivated labor's opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) four years ago -- the possibility of American jobs being exported.

These are legitimate concerns, and Mr. Clinton has been trying to resolve them with ancillary provisions of the trade bill. But the opponents of fast-track won't be satisfied with anything less than a chance to deal with these issues in each case.

The president is operating under strictures. If he is going to win fast-track, it will have to be done largely with Republican votes, as was the case with NAFTA in 1993. And that means that any side provisions must not be seen as what Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott calls "a special interest agenda" -- meaning too much of a concession to Big Labor.

On the face of it, it may seem strange that the AFL-CIO has so much clout. Fewer than 13 percent of American workers are union members these days. And the national economy is becoming increasingly internationalized.

Political power

But under Mr. Sweeney the federation has become far more politically aggressive than it had been for years. And within the Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO is a powerful force because of its ability to provide both money and skilled political manpower to candidates.

Labor has a mixed record of success, however. The unions threatened to exact retribution in 1994 on those who voted for NAFTA but proved to be a paper tiger. There were only one or two cases in which the issue might have been decisive, and even those results were subject to different readings.

The AFL-CIO also was given poor marks for its $35 million campaign expenditures in key races last year. In fact, however, labor scored some successes that contributed to the Democratic gains in the House.

And careful analysis of the 1996 results suggests that the Democrats might have recaptured the House, in some measure because of that labor spending, if Mr. Clinton had not run such a cautious campaign in the late stages of the race because of the charges of campaign finance excesses.

Now the AFL-CIO appears to be threatening the same kind of targeting it used in 1994. And that could be critical if, as many political professionals believe, the race for the House proves extremely close next year.

The fast-track issue could have its most important political ramifications, however, in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. Vice President Al Gore has no choice but to stand firmly with Mr. Clinton on the issue, and his most likely rival, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, is once again taking the leading role in the opposition to fast-track.

The Missouri Democrat is obviously depending on labor to be a prime asset in the contest for the nomination. And if unions are valuable allies in a general election, they are even more important in primaries. These are all factors weighing on President Clinton as he tries to convince Congress to advance rather than retreat on trade.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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