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Freshman Mass. Congressman Faces Tough Call of NAFTA Vote

By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite
The Baltimore Sun

LOWELL, Mass.

Representative Martin T. Meehan is facing double jeopardy. Like dozens of other Democrats in Congress he is about to be damned if he does, and damned if he does not.

His dilemma: whichever way he votes on the North American Trade Agreement he creates a no-win political scenario for himself.

"The time is coming to ultimately make what I think is a very tough decision," he said, pondering his predicament in his district office in this gracefully restored Victorian red brick town. "And there are enormous pressures on both sides of the issue."

A "yes" vote will run against majority sentiment among his working class constituents, anger organized labor, and could cost him re-election next year.

A "no" vote could help deliver a major defeat to President Clinton, whose program he basically supports as a fellow "new Democrat" and aspiring agent of change, and provide the Republicans with political ammunition for his next campaign.

Meehan, 36, a freshman member of Congress from the Fifth Congressional District of Massachusetts, does not today know which way he will vote on the treaty.

He remains torn between local and national priorities, personal and presidential politics, and even between old and new industries in his home district.

This puts him in the eye of the latest breaking political storm on Capitol Hill as he and the 80 or so other undecided Democrats are targeted for conversion by both sides on the issue.

"Being undecided can hurt more," he said. "It focuses more attention on you, and makes what you do seem more important."

The Clinton administration will introduce legislation next month to transform the U.S., Canada and Mexico into the world's largest free trade zone with an annual joint economic output of $6.5 trillion.

That will unleash the final bitter fight over whether the U.S. will gain or lose from the treaty. Opponents say the agreement will cost American jobs and damage the environment as pollution increases along the Mexican border. Proponents counter that it will produce economic growth, create jobs and make the U.S. more competitive against Europe and Japan.

So many Democrats are expected to vote against the treaty that Clinton will have to rely on majority Republican support for approval. NAFTA was negotiated under President Bush, and refined under Clinton, who insisted on tougher labor and environmental safeguards.

"I don't have any qualms about voting for a Republican initiative like this, and I want the administration to succeed," said Meehan. "But right after NAFTA we have health care coming.

On NAFTA, his final word was: "It's going to be very, very interesting to see how it falls out. There are a lot of Democrats who aren't sure. But no matter which way you vote, you better be able to forcefully articulate why."