WASHINGTON -- Maryland's two senators have studiously avoided taking a position during the lengthy debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement, perhaps hoping the House would take them off the hook by rejecting the pact.
Now, with House approval of the agreement last night, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes will have to decide in the next few days whether to back President Clinton or organized labor, which has been the source of their campaign support for years and is a bitter foe of the agreement.
The Senate could vote as early as Saturday, and leaders in both parties predict that it will approve NAFTA.
The eight Marylanders in the House were evenly divided over the agreement with Mexico, Canada and the United States.
Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County.
Opposing the deal were Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore County and Democrats Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Over the last several months, both sides in the NAFTA debate concentrated on lobbying House members, believing that was where opponents had the only chance of defeating the agreement.
While their House colleagues entertained a parade of administration supplicants, Ms. Mikulski and Mr. Sarbanes have not been lobbied by the administration, aides to the senators said.
Along with 23 of their colleagues, the Maryland senators signed a letter in March to President Clinton saying they had "serious concerns" about NAFTA, that it "should only be finalized if it results in U.S. job growth, expands our national manufacturing base, and improves the standard of living for all Americans."
Since then, they have avoided taking a position, saying they were studying the deal.
Senator Mikulski was re-elected last year and will not face the voters again until 1998.
Senator Sarbanes, however, is up for re-election next year, and the GOP is looking for a heavyweight to run against him.
Between 1985 and 1992, Mr. Sarbanes received $285,775 from unions, nearly half of the donations from political action committees. In the first six months of 1993, Mr. Sarbanes received nearly $40,000 from labor, about 40 percent of his PAC contributions.
Ernie Grecco, president of the Baltimore Area Council of the AFL-CIO, acknowledged yesterday that labor, too, has a dilemma.
"Ben Cardin and Steny Hoyer have been with us 90 percent of the time," he said.
RTC "Are we going to knock them out and get someone elected who won't be with us more than 50 or 60 percent of the time?"
He refused to say whether the same logic applied to Mr. Sarbanes and Ms. Mikulski, but he observed that they "are probably the two best [senators] in the country" on labor issues.