CONGRESS and President Clinton are launching the United States on a new and daring experiment in free trade.
Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by the House of Representatives was hailed by supporters as a ``defining moment'' in US relations with its Mexican and Canadian neighbors.
Rep. Bill Archer (R) of Texas praises the pact as a ``watershed'' event that will lead to ``higher-paying export jobs'' in the US. But Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii blasts the agreement and ``corporate elitists [who] tell us we have to globalize our economy at the expense of American workers.''
NAFTA still must be debated by the US Senate, but quick approval is expected. The agreement would take effect on Jan. 1. Almost immediately after the House action, there was talk of extending NAFTA to other nations, beginning with Central America.
Mr. Clinton's House triumph, which came on a 234-to-200 vote, brought quick praise. ``I think he's never looked more presidential,'' says Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann, who is an authority on Congress and the presidency.
Political scientist Larry Sabato says Clinton's boost will be a temporary one, however. ``My guess is, within six months a majority of Americans will not be able to tell you how to spell N-A-F-T-A,'' Dr. Sabato says.
Supporters rallied around NAFTA because of what it will do, but opponents were equally vociferous because of what it does not do.
The pact will open the doors of the US, Mexico, and Canada to tariff-free trade in a wide variety of products, from computers to auto parts. It will protect intellectual property and guarantee investors that their businesses will not be expropriated by future Mexican governments. It also ensures that profits earned can be taken out of a country. Deep opposition
What alienated critics, such as Democratic whip David Bonior of Michigan and Democratic majority leader Richard Gephardt, was that NAFTA does little to improve economic and political prospects for Mexican workers.
The Mexican labor movement still will not be guaranteed the right to strike, organize, assemble, or bargain collectively. Mr. Gephardt argued that it was ``unfair competition'' to force American workers to compete with Mexicans whose wages are held down artificially by government.
Even supporters, such as Rep. Michael Andrews (D) of Texas, admitted there are dangers in NAFTA, but he said approval was ``a risk that is worth taking.'' But many members saw little choice. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois noted: ``America is losing low-tech factory jobs, and will continue to do so whether NAFTA is passed or not.''
Clinton's task now will be to avoid a Pyrrhic victory following a vote in which he was opposed by the majority of his party - 102 Democrats voted for it, 156 against. It was Republicans, who favored NAFTA 132 to 43, who put the agreement over the top.
The president found himself uncomfortably opposed not only by his own House Democrats, but by two of the party's top three House leaders, Representatives Gephardt and Bonior.
Key Democratic constituencies were also angered.
A majority of the 39-member Congressional Black Caucus in the House had asked Clinton for months not to approve NAFTA. Big labor unions, which are crucial to Democratic candidates, fought NAFTA adamantly. A number of Hispanic House members also spoke passionately against the pact.
At least one Democrat, Rep. James Traficant Jr. of Ohio, was so upset by this Democratic president supporting an agreement negotiated by his Republican predecessor, that he denounced both parties for abandoning working Americans. By 2000, he predicted, a new, major third party would form to represent working people.
Public opinion polls showed that Americans, like Congress, were almost evenly divided on NAFTA as the House voted. But analysts say that misses an important point.
The passion and intensity were all on the side of the opponents of NAFTA, notes political scientist Earl Black at Rice University.
Dr. Black predicts ``this vote will create a great deal of [Democratic] unhappiness which can't be just made up overnight.'' `Hip-pocket' Democrats
Yet Black wonders what unions and other opponents of NAFTA can do. They are mostly ``hip-pocket'' Democrats who are so anti-Republican that they have no other place to go. The professor, an expert on Southern politics, suggests NAFTA's passage could be a test of whether big labor unions are really just ``paper tigers'' politically.
Sabato says the threat could be real, however, not only from unions, but from Perot supporters.
``The intensity is among the opponents,'' Sabato says. ``When Ross Perot says, `We'll remember in November ,' he is right. I don't care how unpopular Perot personally becomes, there is a large number of voters on the left and the right who will remember [NAFTA] next November.''
That's a problem that Clinton, and the Congress, now must deal with.