`Fast-Track' a Battleground for Soul of Democratic Party

Article excerpt

President Clinton's six-year effort to remold the Democratic Party in his own, more centrist image faces a pivotal test today in a House vote on trade that also affects the political fate of his would-be successor, Vice President Al Gore.

The immediate issue is relatively minor: whether the president will have the ability to negotiate new trade agreements that Congress can vote on, but not amend.

But so much money, arm-twisting and rhetoric have poured into the fight over "fast-track" that the issue has been transformed into a struggle over who - Mr. Clinton and his fellow centrists, or organized labor and Democratic liberals - will control the party.

"This vote will tell us if the old forces still have an occasional ability to win a fight" or will fail despite expending tremendous resources, said Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, the "New Democrat" organization Mr. Clinton once chaired.

Opponents in the president's own party "have basically said we're going to put all of our effort on this little bill which nobody is passionately for," Mr. From said.

The fast-track bill is bitterly opposed by House Democratic leaders, led by Rep. Richard Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, and by labor unions who have poured millions of dollars into the fight. They argue that unfettered free trade depresses U.S. workers' wages and exploits lax labor and environmental standards in developing countries.

Both sides expect an extremely close vote, and administration officials acknowledged earlier this week they did not yet have the needed votes in the House.

"It's a vote that goes to what we like to call the fundamentals," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "It's fundamental to a reinvigorated approach to economics for the Democratic Party."

The president, he said, firmly believes that fair and open trade will create more opportunities for working Americans "than it costs them in lost jobs and wages."

Mr. Clinton's approach is "a departure from the orthodoxy of the industrial-age liberalism that has defined" the Democratic Party for so long, Mr. …