Democrat says labor could retaliate for pro-China vote

FORT WORTH, Texas - The biggest name on a shrinking list of undecided lawmakers, Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, says he expects some labor unions to take revenge on Democrats who vote for a permanent trade agreement with China.

''My guess is when it's over, people who wind up voting for it, there will be some international unions that will not be active in their campaigns,'' Frost, the third-ranking House Democrat, said in an interview.

He cited the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, although he added they have not threatened him.

UAW spokesman Paul Krell said the union ''will be looking at people's overall records'' in doling out campaign help. He said the union might still actively support lawmakers who vote for the China deal if their November opponent is ''vehemently'' anti-union. Teamsters officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Frost himself is an example of a Democrat facing conflicting pressures over easier trade with China.

Corporations based in his Dallas-area district, including American Airlines, Texas Instruments and Electronic Data Systems Corp., have lobbied him to support the bill. But labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Teamsters chief James P. Hoffa, have pressed him to vote no.

''It's a close call. China is the largest country in the world, the largest potential market for us. You have to take that into account,'' Frost said. ''You also have to take into account the treatment of their own people and also the concerns of labor.''

Opponents say the trade agreement threatens the jobs of American workers and strips the United States of leverage to improve human rights in China and press the Chinese to keep their international commitments.

Supporters, including President Clinton and most Republicans, say the deal is good for the U.S. economy and can help lead to human rights and political reforms in China.

''This is a big deal to me, beyond the obvious economic benefits which make it easier for some members than others to vote for, because of the economic makeup of their districts,'' Clinton said Sunday.

A House vote on the trade status bill is scheduled for midweek, and Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas said momentum for the measure was growing. Passage in the Senate is nearly assured.

Frost has asked the administration to pay for modernizing a Northrop Grumman Corp. military aircraft plant that employs 5,000 people, but he denies it's a quid pro quo for a yes vote. Help for the facility in Grand Prairie could give Frost political cover - many of the jobs are union, and it is the largest employer in his district.

Although Frost has courted union support during his 11 terms in the House, he has voted for other trade bills opposed by labor, notably the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement. He also has voted in the past to renew China's normal trade status on an annual basis.

Union officials in Texas are bracing for another disappointment.

''This vote is extraordinarily important to us - I don't know of one this year that's bigger,'' said Ed Sills, a spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO. ''There's no question Martin Frost's voting record on issues important to working people is excellent. It may be less excellent after this vote.''

Sills said the labor federation figures to support Frost even if he votes for the China agreement, but he warned that such Democrats risk losing the support of union households in the fall.

''After the NAFTA vote, there were a significant number of people in organized labor who weren't very enthusiastic in the 1994 election,'' in which Democrats lost control of the House, Sills said. ''We don't want that to happen this year.''

Frost played down the possible impact of the China vote this fall, when Democrats hope to regain control of the House.

''It could make a difference in a few districts, but I don't think that what labor does or doesn't do in certain districts is going to prevent us from taking back the House,'' he said.

The lack of a well-known opponent in the November election could make it easier for Frost to buck labor.

''People like Frost, who seem vulnerable now, will vote for it and escape without suffering a loss for that reason alone except where their race is already close,'' said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas.

Frost will face a political novice, James Bryndan Wright, a former aide to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose congressional district neighbors Frost's.

''I don't expect much of a race,'' Frost said.

As chairman of the Democratic Caucus, Frost is below only Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan in the hierarchy of House Democrats. Both Gephardt and Bonior oppose the China deal.


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