WASHINGTON - Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin will cast his first vote against a trade agreement during almost two decades in Congress this week, when a pact with several Central American countries comes up for what is expected to be a close House tally.
Cardin, the top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees trade, said he would break a long streak of supporting free-trade arrangements because the Central America Free Trade Agreement - known as CAFTA - doesn't do enough to promote the rights of overseas workers.
"I came to the conclusion that it's one thing not to make advances; it's another thing to move backward in our efforts to improve international workers' rights in trade agreements. This just goes over the edge in terms of what I can support," the Baltimore-area congressman said Monday.
The White House is pushing hard for a vote this week on the pact, which involves the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Congress can approve or reject the deal, but not amend it.
But with nearly unanimous Democratic opposition - and a handful of Republicans opposed or leaning that way - the outcome is uncertain. President Bush is to make a rare visit to Capitol Hill today to lobby wavering Republicans.
Cardin is not alone among typically pro-trade Democrats in opposing the pact. But he is also running to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, which may be prompting him to try to broaden his appeal, political scientist James G. Gimpel said yesterday.
"I think that Ben Cardin is probably looking outside his congressional district and seeing there's a potentially tough race here, and he needs to think a little about a larger constituency," said Gimpel, of the University of Maryland, College Park.
As a 3rd District congressman with a fairly safe seat since 1987, Gimpel said, Cardin's decisions might not attract much attention back home. But as a Senate candidate facing a likely Democratic primary and the possibility of a general election matchup against Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Cardin has to think bigger.
"That's going to make him more attentive to where Maryland is at," Gimpel said. "Of course, if he has a primary, which seems likely, that means that he needs to take positions that will shore up his position with Democratic voters first, and then think about the broader Maryland electorate."
To a degree, that means courting organized labor, which has traditionally backed Cardin and strongly opposes CAFTA.
Cardin said his run for higher office has nothing to do with his CAFTA vote and is unrelated to lobbying by labor groups. He said he made his qualms about the trade agreement clear before Sarbanes announced in March that he would quit at the end of his current term.
Supporters of CAFTA, especially business groups, said they were disappointed that Cardin opposes the agreement, which would eliminate almost all trade barriers to goods, services and farm products between the member countries, immediately or over time.
"We certainly would like to see him reconsider his position," said Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, which has been lobbying members of Congress to support the agreement.
The trade pact has been a political football in Annapolis. Democrats in the General Assembly criticized Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for failing to move quickly to withdraw the state from CAFTA, after the Democrat-controlled legislature voted to rescind Maryland's involvement.
Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr., president of the Economy Strategy Institute, a Washington think tank that focuses on trade issues, said the battle over CAFTA reflects a major shift in many lawmakers' attitudes toward trade deals.
"A succession of these agreements - and they have been presented to the Congress by a succession of administrations, both Democratic and Republican - [have] been sold on the basis that they're going to create jobs, they're going to stimulate exports, they're going to reduce the trade deficit. And they haven't," said Prestowitz, a trade official during the Reagan administration. "I think that there has been, over a period of years, a lot of overselling, and that's beginning to catch up. And Congress is beginning to say, `That's what you told me last time."'