Mikulski and Sarbanes, Take Heed!


The heat is on the U.S. Senate. A few weeks ago it did not look as though senators would have to vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement. But President Clinton and a solid majority in the House of Representatives have beaten back the protectionists. Now it's the Senate's turn.

That puts Maryland's two Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, in an uncomfortable spot. If the House had turned down the agreement, they would have avoided a NAFTA vote. A chance to duck the issue would have been welcome, since politicians dislike having to choose between their party's leader and their constituents' interests on the one hand and major campaign contributors on the other.

Both senators have been unwavering allies of organized labor and have received a large part of their campaign contributions from unions. They appeared to be leaning toward opposition early in the NAFTA debate, but they have since kept a discreet silence. They can't any longer.

The senators have a good example to follow in the votes of Rep. Steny Hoyer and Rep. Benjamin Cardin, both liberal Democrats who also run with strong labor support. They voted for NAFTA, seeing it on balance as a net gain for U.S. workers as well as business. In the hotly contested House balloting, that took a fair measure of courage.

Just because the outcome in the Senate is not in doubt doesn't take the pressure off Ms. Mikulski and Mr. Sarbanes. NAFTA is a defining issue. The intensity of the debate in the past few months has raised NAFTA beyond its undoubted importance as a regional trade pact to a symbol of U.S. relations with the rest of the world. It is also a test of the president's ability to conduct foreign relations without being undercut at home. Truly liberal senators should be on the side of mutually beneficial world cooperation.

In a state like Maryland there should be no question where its legislators stand. Foreign trade is vital to the Port of Baltimore and to many of the state's industries, not to mention its farm-related businesses. It is noteworthy that few of Maryland's union leaders, who understand what's really good for their members, are as fervently opposed to NAFTA as their national leaders. NAFTA is in the interests of Maryland workers and businesses, even if half the state's House delegation wasn't able to comprehend that fact. There should be no doubt in the minds of Ms. Mikulski and Mr. Sarbanes where their constituents' interests lie.

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