PRESIDENT Bush is greeting the returning Congress this week with an all-out public appeal for free trade. For the first time since the Jan. 13 vote in Congress to authorize war in the Gulf, Mr. Bush is lobbying an issue with the full weight of his office as bully pulpit.
He is attempting to thwart protectionist impulses in Congress, chiefly among Democrats, based on the fear of companies fleeing American wage levels, safety standards, and environmental protections to Mexico.
The issue is the proposed free-trade agreement with Mexico and fast-track authority for a president to negotiate trade agreements then submit them directly to Congress for a simple vote - allowing no amendments that have to be renegotiated with trading partners.
The Bush assault began April 7, the day he met with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Houston, and continued on April 8. The president promised he would take on ``big labor,'' which opposes free trade, ``head on head.''
Congress has until June 1 to renew fast-track authority for the president, but the debate on Capitol Hill will be closely tangled up with forging a free-trade agreement with Mexico.
Political insiders in both parties speculate that Bush's free-trade position will win out, but not without a fight.
The battle is not clearly partisan. Republicans are mostly in the free-trade camp. Democrats are more divided. House Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington and Senate Finance Committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen of Texas both support the Bush position.
House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and House Energy Committee chairman John Dingell of Michigan are skeptical. Each seeks further guarantees in any trade agreement to protect American jobs and the environment.
Since Bush began raising the profile of the issue April 7, the politics changes slightly, says a Democratic congressional staff member. The White House strategy is likely to solidify Republican support, he says, but could also coalesce Democratic opposition.
Bush is likely to be taking on the free-trade issue so aggressively because he cares about the outcome, rather than for partisan political reasons, according to political operatives and analysts.
The key may not be the Mexican trade agreement as the fast-track authority and its potential to help restart GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which is the basis of much of the world's international commerce.
This issue, speculates Tony Blankley, press secretary to House minority whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, ``is something he senses in his bones that is part of his stewardship of his country.''
Unlike many domestic issues, free trade does not carry any clear political advantages.
``There is not a political base for free trade,'' says Fred Steeper, a pollster in Southfield, Mich., who does survey work for President Bush through the Republican National Committee. ``Only college-educated people understand the benefits.''
The risks, on the other hand, are of losing jobs to foreign competition, and people are aware of it, he says.
Democratic consultant Bob Beckel agrees, but sees the issue as a two-edged sword that could hurt Democratic protectionists as well. The jobs at risk from free trade, he notes, are not as direct a concern to the middle-class voters that Democrats want to win over.
Protectionism is an easier issue to use at a congressional or state level, where a threatened industry may predominate, than at the national level where it costs consumers money, Mr. Blankley says.
Bush argued April 8 that without the fast-track authority that would help him forge a new global trading agreement in GATT talks and begin opening up Latin America to free trade, ``We lose trade. We lose jobs and jeopardize economic growth.''
Bush called the labor unionists and environmentalists who oppose the fast track ``fear mongers.''
``They seem to be the only ones who haven't learned lately that defeatism produces defeat, while confidence and self-reliance produce greatness.''