A SHARPLY divided House of Representatives votes tomorrow on one of the most important and controversial international trade agreements in modern times.
After months of public and private debate, lawmakers will decide whether to approve the complex, 2,000-page North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA would create the world's largest trading bloc, encompassing 365 million people in Mexico, Canada, and the United States.
``This is a historic moment,'' says Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, a NAFTA supporter. But House Democratic whip David Bonior of Michigan, an opponent, complains that NAFTA will drive down US wages and give America ``back to the robber barons.''
President Clinton has a lot riding on the outcome. No president has lost a trade vote since the White House got authority to negotiate such deals almost 60 years ago.
NAFTA is much more than an ordinary trade agreement that would make it easier to sell American-made Chevrolets in Chihuahua, or Guadalajaran chocolate in Chicago.
A ``yes'' vote tomorrow would set in motion far-reaching changes in hemispheric trading patterns. Mr. Clinton says NAFTA is just the first step, the opening wedge in a US-led effort to form a massive trading alliance.
Eventually, the White House envisions a free-trade zone that stretches across the entire Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic tundra of Canada to the southern tip of Chile. Passage of NAFTA would simultaneously turn up the heat on Europe, and on the tightly controlled Japanese and Chinese markets, to open their doors to US goods.
Ramifications of the House vote will be fourfold- economic, political, social, and diplomatic.
The most controversial aspect of NAFTA involves jobs. Texas billionaire Ross Perot charges NAFTA will be a knife aimed at the heart of American workers. Labor unions say dropping trade barriers between prosperous nations like Canada and the US and a developing country with rock-bottom wages like Mexico will send millions of jobs fleeing south.
The Democratic White House, awkwardly allied with House Republicans and big business, preaches the benefits of trilateral free trade. NAFTA will create good jobs in all three countries, the president insists - and 12 Nobel laureate economists say he is right.
Bill Daley, special counselor to the president for NAFTA, says its merits are no longer an issue with most members of Congress. If representatives voted by secret ballot, NAFTA would win easily, he asserts.
Mr. Daley says congressmen now are grappling with the potential political fall-out from a ``yes'' vote on an issue hotly opposed by organized labor. Democrats get millions of campaign dollars from unions. Many who might support NAFTA worry that unions will sponsor opponents against them in the 1994 party primaries.
So concerned is the White House about the labor threat that Clinton has vowed to defend any congressman - Democrat or Republican - for their vote in favor of NAFTA if they are attacked for it in next year's elections.
Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says the political hazards are equally great for Clinton. He notes that the president began the NAFTA fight with a huge Democratic majority in the House (mostly anti-NAFTA) and a GOP that already supported NAFTA. ``If he still loses, it not only weakens him at home, but it very seriously weakens him abroad, where he is already a question mark ... after Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti,'' Mr. Hess says.
Mexican officials warn that defeat could set back relations between that country and the US for a generation. NAFTA is the culmination of several years of rapidly growing trade between the US and Mexico, and defeat could kill that momentum for years, Mexican leaders say.
Critics disagree. They say if NAFTA loses, new trade negotiations will begin virtually the next day. They also discount Secretary of State Warren Christopher's pronouncement that defeat would send ``a chilling signal'' to Latin America. Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, says defeat of NAFTA would be a ``one-day story'' greeted with ``a yawn'' in South America.
THE NAFTA debate cuts across many US concerns. For example, Attorney General Janet Reno recently told several reporters that NAFTA, by creating new jobs in Mexico, is ``the only viable way of dealing with [illegal] immigration'' to the US.
Ms. Reno says NAFTA will also encourage better working relationships between officials on both sides of the border. Without closer ties, illegal immigration will be difficult to control, she says.
Critics are less sanguine about the social implications of the pact, however. Among those deeply concerned are House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri and economist Harley Shaiken at the University of California (Berkeley).
Mr. Gephardt says bluntly: ``Mexican labor is not free ... to collectively bargain, to organize, and to strike.'' He says that is one reason wages there dropped sharply during the 1980s, despite the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
Dr. Shaiken also criticizes NAFTA negotiators for failing to protect Mexican workers' rights. He complains that with labor under the thumb of government in Mexico, wages are ``artificially depressed.'' He worries that US companies could become addicted to cheap labor, rather than raising Mexican living standards.
Whether NAFTA wins or loses, the debate over the future of the North American economy apparently has just begun.