WASHINGTON -- Breaking with the president he has strongly supported, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes announced his opposition yesterday to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Claiming that the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada would impose "a very heavy disproportionate burden on the production workers of this country," the Baltimore Democrat said in a Senate floor speech that "we ought to go back to the drawing boards."
With Maryland Republicans looking for a heavyweight to run against him in next year's election, Mr. Sarbanes took the politically safe course, siding with organized labor, a major NAFTA opponent and one of his strongest campaign supporters over the years.
Mr. Sarbanes' announcement came less than 24 hours after the House voted, 234-200, to approve NAFTA, which would eliminate trade barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico over the next 15 years. President Clinton fought hard to push the agreement through a bitterly divided House.
The Senate, which began debate yesterday, is expected to approve the pact in the next few days. The Associated Press said in a survey yesterday that 49 senators say they will vote for NAFTA, one short of the bare minimum needed for approval. The AP listed both Mr. Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski as undecided. An aide to Ms. Mikulski said last night that she had not yet made up her mind.
On Wednesday night, as the House was preparing to vote on the treaty, the White House budget director, Leon E. Panetta, said that the Clinton administration expected to get 55 to 60 Senate votes and that it did not know how either Marylander would vote.
In his speech, Mr. Sarbanes warned of a flow of U.S. jobs south, saying Mexican workers earn 15 percent of U.S. wages while achieving productivity 80 percent to 100 percent of that attained by U.S. workers.
Cheap, efficient labor, along with guaranteed access to U.S. markets and "extraordinary protections" for the capital invested in U.S. plants built in Mexico create a "powerful economic dynamic," he said.
This will result in some firms moving production south, he said, while giving other manufacturers leverage to bargain for lower wages and tax breaks by threatening to move to Mexico.
He criticized Mexico for following "a low wage strategy as an essential element of their economic development" and for failing to have "a working democracy."