WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton celebrates a China trade vote that might prove his crowning policy achievement, other Democrats are asking whether it will dampen their chances of winning the House this fall.
"This vote can't be a good vote for Democrats intending to take back the House," Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy said of Wednesday's vote in the House, because it forced the party -- and some embattled incumbents -- to choose between friends in organized labor and friends in business.
Labor and business are bitterly at odds on whether to grant permanent favorable trade status to China, which both sides viewed as possibly the most important vote of this year. Both sides are essential to the Democratic drive to retake majority control in the House.
The 237-to-197 vote was a Clintonian masterpiece of linking forces with those who usually oppose his policies. Momentarily allied with one of his most ardent foes, GOP Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, Mr. Clinton mustered a big majority of Republicans, as well as a big enough fraction of the Democrats to win in the House comfortably.
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney told reporters yesterday that he was "deeply angry" that a president elected with labor support "chose to divide" progressive House members from labor constituencies "at a time when we need to be unified and mobilizing around Social Security, health care, education and other crucial working families' issues."
Sweeney and Kennedy recalled the alliance Mr. Clinton forged with Republicans in 1993 to win the North American Free Trade Agreement over the passionate opposition of labor -- and most House Democrats.
Sweeney said, "A very real concern is that this debate will depress turnout" by labor-oriented voters, as it did after NAFTA in 1994, when the GOP took control of the House for the first time in four decades.
Kennedy echoed that concern but said there is plenty of time before election day to rekindle labor's enthusiasm for the Democratic Party, and to move on to issues that arouse voters much more than trade does.
As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Kennedy has repeatedly sounded the theme that a Republican-led House won't do what most voters want on the meatiest issues -- education, health care, gun control, the minimum wage.
Amy Walter, a House campaign expert from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said the analogy between China trade and the 1993 NAFTA vote might be overblown. "Remember the context," she said. "First-term president. Still-shaky economy. Tax increase" to cut the deficit. These issues were bigger factors in the GOP triumph of 1994, said Walter, who reasoned that it's too early to declare the China vote as a big election issue for either side this fall.
Kennedy's Republican counterpart said the politics of the China trade vote will help challengers of several vulnerable House Democrats, mostly in the Northeast.
The China trade issue won't inflame masses of voters, said Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, but "it's a great reminder" to business supporters "that the so-called New Democrats are led by [Minority Leader] Dick Gephardt and [Democratic Whip] David Bonior and Patrick Kennedy and the old-line Democrats who carry labor's water and are not for free trade."
The GOP's majority in the House is very thin; a net loss of only six seats would put the Democrats back in charge, under Speaker Gephardt. With the stakes so high and the contest so close, both sides are scrambling for an edge in a relative handful of congressional districts where the outcome is in doubt.
"It's no coincidence," said campaign expert Walter, that the China card might play best -- if it plays at all -- in a section of the country where unions still count for a lot, the Northeast.
Davis said three vulnerable Northeastern members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition might now be more vulnerable this fall, after siding with labor to vote against the China trade bill: Representatives James H. Maloney, of Connecticut; Joseph M. Hoeffel, of Pennsylvania; and Rush Holt, of New Jersey.
Maloney said some business constitutents, such as United Technologies Corp., a major defense and electronics employer, were disappointed by his vote, but that some older manufacturing concerns in the Waterbury area had no great stake in the issue. In any event, Maloney said, rank-and-file voters are so much more concerned about health care and other issues that "I doubt my opponent will devote a lot of resources" to the trade issue in November.
On the other side of the ledger, one of the promising young challengers Kennedy is touting, Democrat Pat Casey, said he will make an issue of Republican Rep. Don Sherwood's vote for the China trade bill in their heavily unionized central Pennsylvania district.
Like Maloney on the other side, Sherwood said he had waited until the last minute to declare his voting decision because he was carefully weighing how it would affect the people back home.
Sherwood said he concluded that the agricultural area surrounding Scranton, Pa. -- plus some area firms in the drug and high-tech industries -- would benefit enough from trade with China to offset labor's legitimate concerns about human rights and the possible loss of manufacturing jobs to cheap labor abroad.
Just as Maloney said that he has often voted for United Technologies' interests on defense bills and the like, Sherwood said he will remind labor of his support for raising the minimum wage, among other votes.
In any event, Davis said the China trade held much less political peril for most Republicans than it did for Democrats because labor supports so few GOP candidates, while Democrats need the backing of area employers as well as labor.
Kennedy was one of several Democrats who voiced the party's long-simmering unhappiness at President Clinton's decision to put such a difficult election-year choice before the House.
Kennedy demurred when he was asked whether he had voiced his unhappiness to Mr. Clinton. "I known that Mr. Gephardt has," Kennedy said of the Democratic leader from Missouri. "And as has often been said, I am just a functionary of Mr. Gephardt," he added with a smile.