WASHINGTON (AP) â€” In a private meeting in House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt's office this spring, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and high-tech-minded lawmakers clashed over legislation granting more visas to highly skilled foreign workers.
``It had its tense moments,'' one participant said of the session that ended as it began, with Sweeney opposed to the bill as written, the Democratic rank and file in favor and their leader siding with them.
A few weeks later, though, Gephardt cheered labor when he announced his opposition to higher-profile legislation that would grant permanent normalized trade relations with China, a measure at the top of the high-tech agenda.
Together, these events underscore the party leader's attempt to straddle two worlds â€” each with allies within his own caucus â€” in the run-up to fall elections he hopes will restore the Democratic majority in the House. On the one side is organized labor, longtime political allies with deep pockets and a proven record in campaign warfare. On the other is the high-tech industry, the engine for the new economy and a fresh source of campaign contributions, $1.4 million at one April fund-raiser alone.
``There is widespread recognition that Gephardt is really reaching out to the sector,'' said Phil Bond, a vice president for the Information Technology Industry Council. ``At the same time, there's widespread disappointment that he couldn't find a way to support trade with China.''
Steve Elmendorf, Gephardt's chief of staff, responded: ``We try not with any industry to be 100 percenters. Each industry is different and sometimes we're with you and sometimes we're not.''
``It is a straddle, but I can be nothing but complimentary about the role that Dick has played on China,'' Rep. Cal Dooley, a Californian who favors the trade bill, said in an interview before Gephardt announced his opposition. Dooley is also co-chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a 64-member group that describes itself as centrist and pro-growth.
Another co-chair, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, credits Gephardt with a ``watershed'' speech last month in which the Missouri Democrat pledged support for tax cuts and regulatory relief to keep ``the technology revolution on track.''
Congressional Republicans are less charitable.
``Gephardt's trying to put a foot in both camps,'' said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who heads the GOP campaign committee. Davis noted that Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, the second-ranking House Democrat, is point man for opposition to the China bill.
``There isn't one New Democrat that's going to be in the leadership team'' if the Democrats win a House majority'' Davis chided.
The information technology group's 1999 scorecard gave Gephardt a 50 percent rating on key issues. Bonior scored 25 percent. Top House Republicans scored 100 percent. This year's high-tech scorecard will be weighted to accentuate the importance of the China bill.
At the AFL-CIO, there's a different view.
Legislative director Peggy Taylor, who attended the meeting in Gephardt's office with Sweeney, said she hopes for an agreement on the visa bill. But, she added, ``We're not happy with how the New Democrats are driving this.''
While the China trade bill is not a litmus test for the fall campaign, she said, there could be repercussions for Democrats who support it. ``We're concerned it will overshadow other issues and it will cause apathy or inclination not to'' vote, she said.
Gephardt's aides describe his approach on China as a measured one, and say he will not lobby fellow Democrats. The White House supports the bill, and his caucus is split roughly 2-1 against it.
Dooley, Moran and others note that Gephardt's attention to high-tech issues extends beyond the visa bill. A speech last month showcased support for phasing out a 3 percent federal telecommunications excise tax; liberalized depreciation rules for computers; and a permanent extension of the research and development tax credit.
In addition, Gephardt has met in recent months with high-tech leaders, touring Amazon.Com facilities, for example. Next week, House Democrats will host a session for business leaders from around the country, and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is invited.
At the same time, Democrats have aggressively solicited campaign donations from the high-tech industry. Gephardt and President Clinton attended a Silicon Valley fund-raiser last month that brought in $1.4 million for the House Democratic campaign committee.
And Republicans are pushing back.
GOP officials say Davis and Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., a leading supporter of trade with China, will meet with high-tech industry representatives this week to express displeasure that campaign checks continue to flow to a party whose leadership opposes the China bill.
Gephardt took their contributions and ``stabbed them in the back on the issue that matters most to them,'' said Jim Wilkinson, a GOP spokesman.
Laura Nichols, Gephardt's spokeswoman, countered, ``We have never raised money with the idea that you take a donation here and the legislation comes out over here.''
Gephardt ``assumes that people meet with him and give him money because they're interested in him as a leader,'' she said.