SIX weeks ago Robert Kapp wrote to Washington State's members of Congress asking them to support a free-trade accord with Mexico and Canada.
Mr. Kapp, president of the Washington Council on International Trade, says he is pleased that one of the congressmen he wrote to, Jay Inslee (D), came out for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) soon thereafter. But with less than two weeks before a scheduled vote in the House of Representatives, a great many of the lawmakers from the nation's most trade-oriented state cannot seem to make up their mind on NAFTA.
For the Clinton administration, campaigning all-out to win over a reluctant Congress, Washington State's fence-sitting is a troubling barometer. A ``no'' vote, observers say, would be a severe setback not only for the president but also for United States leadership in bringing down trade barriers in a worldwide agreement near completion.
``We do more foreign trade per capita by far than any other state,'' Kapp notes. Washington's trade with Mexico, though still not rivaling Asian or Canadian trade, has grown by 600 percent in five years and now supports 4,200 jobs. From apples and paper products to trucks and airplanes, Washington-made exports stand to gain from falling tariffs under NAFTA, companies say. The computer software industry, represented in the state by Microsoft Corporation and hundreds of other companies, would reap copyright protection under groundbreaking intellectual-property provisions in the treaty.
Washington's delegation, though traditionally pro-trade, has also been pro-labor. Unions are among the trade pact's strongest opponents, worrying that factories will move to Mexico to take advantage of $1-an-hour wages.
In interviews late last week, three Washington State congressmen talked about the issues they are pondering as they prepare for the NAFTA vote. While only one of the nine representatives has come out against the treaty, five have not declared a position.
Jennifer Dunn, the lone Republican among the state's nine House members, says her mail from constituents has been running about 5 to 1 against NAFTA.
``When I get that many letters, I listen very carefully to all the different arguments against it,'' says Ms. Dunn, who is a supporter of the deal.
Clinton's concessions to win support of liberal Democrats risk losing some GOP support. ``I've got to be convinced that we're not giving too much for what we're getting,'' Dunn told the Monitor.
Mike Kreidler (D) is assessing the jobs equation: Will it be good or bad for US workers? He is also weighing concern about the US losing face as a free-trade leader against his concern about Mexican worker's weak labor rights.
Al Swift (D), who like Mr. Kreidler is undeclared on NAFTA, says supporters of the deal argue that free trade is a winner for workers in all countries involved. ``I may end up voting with them because I think there's merit'' in that view, he says. He cites some of the same concerns as Mr. Kreidler's as central to his decision.
``This may be the toughest vote I'll cast in 16 years,'' says Mr. Swift, a longtime friend of organized labor. Acknowledging that low-level jobs are already flowing to countries such as Mexico and that ``Mexican workers have lousy working conditions,'' Swift asks, ``How will defeating NAFTA help any of that?''
But in many ways the vote is seen as a litmus test of Democratic support for labor. Swift says his own vote will not be a symbolic one, but that if NAFTA does not pass it will be largely a backlash against labor's poor treatment under 12 years of Republican presidents.
Several Washington legislators are also concerned about talk of paying for expected lost tariff revenue under NAFTA by taxing airline tickets, which could hurt airplane sales by the state's job king, the Boeing Company.