Tomorrow, Sen. Paul Sarbanes has a chance to redeem his 1993 vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he opposed in a shortsighted attempt to placate organized labor. The issue this time is the ponderous but vital General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Following last night's strong show of support from the House of Representatives, the Senate takes up GATT, where the issue remains in some doubt. Unlike the vote on NAFTA, where Senate ratification was certain even without Mr. Sarbanes' support, the Democrat's "aye" could be critical this time.
Vote-counters on Capitol Hill believe there is a Senate majority for GATT. It has broad support in both parties, especially since the Republican leader, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, worked out his reservations with the White House. The crucial vote, however, will not be on the agreement itself but on a procedural issue that involves suspending a budgetary rule. That action requires a three-fifths vote, rather than the simple majority to approve the agreement itself.
It could be a tempting subterfuge for a senator wishing to kill GATT without ostensibly voting against it to cast a ballot only against the rule suspension.
As a major blow at trade restrictions around the world, GATT is vital to Maryland, which depends so heavily on foreign trade for prosperity and jobs. It reduces tariffs on a variety of products and imposes stronger controls over the arbitrary erection of non-tariff barriers against the free flow of goods around the world.
True, those restrictions apply to the U.S. as well as to its trading partners. But with its comparative advantages in so many products -- including many made in Maryland, utilized here or passing through the Port of Baltimore -- the U.S. gains far more than it loses.
Senator Sarbanes is intelligent enough to know this. His dependence on organized labor for political support blinded him a year ago to the nation's -- and Maryland's -- need for NAFTA. Senator Sarbanes now has won re-election with ease, and his Maryland colleague, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who also voted against NAFTA, has made it easier for him by announcing her support of GATT. When Mr. Sarbanes is not pandering to his labor supporters, who are divided on GATT, free trade is fully consistent with his economic philosophy.
At last head count, Senator Sarbanes was "leaning toward" supporting GATT but still had not committed himself. He should, and promptly.