Fast Track's Judgment Day

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WASHINGTON: This is the big one the one Bill Clinton wants more than anything for his second term. It's "fast track," and in the Senate it's as good as passed. But Friday the measure hits the House, and there its fate is very much undecided.

Freer trade is Clinton's magic formula for prosperity; being stripped of his negotiating powers will be a victory for Dick Gephardt, labor unions and all the other Democratic demons of the Carter-Mondale years that Clinton's 'global economy' supposedly vanquished.

The scramble for votes, on both sides, continued Thursday. Clinton called on the stable of fast-tracking ex-presidents, who piped up for the measure at an opening ceremony for the Bush presidential library. On the way home, he was ringing up lawmakers from Air Force One. But ideologically, Clinton is already blue in the face on the subject, and for converts the pork store is officially open.

By most estimates the score is grim for the White House: At least 130 Democrats are already firmly against, with another 10-20 leaning no. With only 30 firmly in favor, this leaves the White House little room to find the 70 Democrats it probably needs to win. Republicans, meanwhile, are philosophically in Clinton's camp. But Gingrich wants some Democratic cover to deliver his troops, and still others, spotting a desperate Clinton, are just squeezing him for favors.

For Gephardt (or at least Gephardt 2000), the stakes are just as high. This is a huge chance to stick it to Gore (while bringing most of the House Democrats with him) on a working-guy issue that will play gangbusters on the campaign trail. For once he may pull it off.