Facing a critical election, with control of the House at stake, Congress will be inclined to duck more issues than it resolves next year. But there is one big issue it cannot avoid--trade.

When the Chinese government gave U.S. negotiators Gene Sperling and Charlene Barshefsky the significant tariff reductions and other concessions they sought, the Clinton administration committed this country to supporting China's membership in the World Trade Organization--the global arbiter of trade disputes.

It will be sometime in the spring, White House officials told me, before China has concluded similar agreements with Brazil and the European Union, and filed the formal papers in Geneva for membership in the WTO. Soon thereafter, Clinton will ask Congress to take the final action China expects--granting Beijing the same permanent "normal trade relations" status with the United States that other WTO countries now enjoy. And then the fat will be in the fire.

Critics of China, led by organized labor, will argue that until China stops jailing people for union organizing--a practice that Clinton's aides acknowledge is all too common--and improves its abominable human rights record, it does not deserve to join the community of law-abiding nations.

Rep. Bob Matsui of California, the point man for the White House on this issue, told me that even if most Republicans back the business-supported effort to open the Chinese market to American goods and services, it will be tough to produce enough Democratic votes to pass the measure.

"I felt much better last month than I do today," he said, because of the fiasco at the recent WTO meeting in Seattle, when demonstrators almost shut down the city with their demands for tougher labor and environmental protections in future trade agreements. The problem was compounded when Clinton expressed sympathy for some of their complaints about the WTO, and foreign delegates, taking offense, balked at starting a new round of market-opening talks. "It really did shake people up," Matsui said.

The White House and business lobbies are mobilizing for what Clinton aides call "the most important economic debate in years." But labor and its allies in the environmental and human-rights movements are organizing grass-roots opposition to the vote. "It's an emotional issue as well as an economic issue for us," an AFL-CIO official told me. It is not yet clear, however, if John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president, will make it a "litmus test" issue by threatening to deny campaign aid to Democrats who support Clinton. Labor did that on the "fast-track" issue in 1997 but not (under Sweeney's predecessor) on the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and it made a critical difference.

In 1993, when the House voted on NAFTA, 102 Democrats joined Republicans to pass the measure. In 1997, when Clinton sought renewal of the "fast-track" trade negotiating authority his predecessors had been given by Congress, labor drew a sharper line, and only about 40 Democrats signaled they were ready to defy Sweeney and support the president. The administration pulled the bill rather than suffer a humiliating defeat.

Sweeney is under pressure from the auto and steelworkers' unions and the Teamsters to take a hard-line stance, but he has yet to signal how tough he will be on Democratic defectors. No one worries more about Sweeney's decision than Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader of the House. Gephardt's main goal in 2000 is to capture the additional five seats that would give the Democrats the majority and make him speaker. He needs labor's political support in battleground districts to do that.

Gephardt is looking for a compromise, which may not exist. He told me that satisfying the labor rights and environmental protections issues in trade talks is important, but "a long-term process." He said he agrees with Matsui that whatever the House does, China will enter the WTO next year.

But he said he is looking for some "alternative mechanism that would let us assure ourselves that China is complying with its pledges to the WTO and also let us monitor the policies of American firms operating in China," i.e., something that would let the unions and their many allies in the Democratic caucus claim at least a partial victory.

To which a White House official responded: "If he's talking about some parallel process that would monitor the Chinese performance on human rights, it might be a good thing to do. But it can't be linked to granting them normal trade relations. We can't put conditions on China's entry into WTO different from other countries. There's too much at stake."

Fasten your seat belts. This battle is just beginning.