Last week's unexpected news that China and the United States had agreed on terms for China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) left one group in Washington distinctly unenthusiastic: Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Although many House Democrats favor China's participation in the WTO and will vote to make it possible next year, few of them welcome the divisions a debate on the issue will emphasize during an election year, when they are struggling to regain a majority in the House. House Democrats have been almost evenly divided on China trade issues for several years, and organized labor, a key Democratic constituency, fervidly opposes Chinese membership in the WTO, at least rhetorically.

"This is going to be very damaging . . . to the unity of the Democratic Party," predicted Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who opposes China's entry into the WTO but recognizes the strength of those who favor Chinese membership. In an interview Friday she blamed President Clinton for putting "his own legacy" ahead of party interests. Clinton is "trying to redeem his failed China policy," Pelosi said.

Other Democrats said they could avoid a split. "We're not going to let this divide us in our larger goals," said House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior (Mich.), who opposes the deal the administration negotiated with China. But with the AFL-CIO promising to fight the deal, several Democrats acknowledged anxiety about what may happen.

The House will not vote on Chinese membership in the WTO. The U.S. administration, like all governments that belong to the WTO, can admit China without congressional approval. Congress will only vote on granting permanent tariff preferences to China, what used to be called most-favored-nation status and is now called normal trade relations status (NTR). Under WTO rules, the United States must give China permanent NTR to receive the market-opening concessions China has made to get into the world body.

This pleases lobbyists promoting Chinese membership, who look forward to arguing that a negative vote in the House would only have the effect of denying the benefits of China's entry into the WTO to U.S. farmers and businesses while other WTO members cash in. Many House members, including Democrats, said this argument will help win the vote for China's permanent NTR status. It will also make a vote against permanent NTR harder for some members to explain to disappointed farmers and businessmen in their districts.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) saw this problem coming several years ago and introduced a bill that would have given Congress a vote on China's WTO membership. The bill went nowhere. In an interview Friday, Gephardt said that because of the nature of the vote on China next year, it was more accurate to see it as a human rights issue than a trade issue.

Gephardt said many of his colleagues welcomed the annual vote on extending China's tariff status because it gave Congress some "leverage" over China's human rights policies. But he added that this debate has "become rather stale" because "the outcome is foreordained"; for six years in a row, the House has approved NTR tariff status for China.

Democrats, Gephardt said, must decide if they want to try to keep the annual review of China's human rights policies as part of a trade-status vote, or whether there is "a different way to deal with human rights and keeping pressure on China that is more appropriate if they're going to be in the WTO. Can we write a new procedure for a periodic evaluation of how they're doing on human rights that would be compatible with WTO and . . . perhaps be more effective that what we have now?"

This is a new formulation for Gephardt, which reflects the widespread view in his party and among outsiders following the issue that defeating permanent NTR status for China is probably impossible. As Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), a leading proponent of China's WTO membership, put it in an interview: "I think frankly the vote is going to be pretty good on this."

Added a former Democratic Hill aide who lobbies the issue for business: "This is going to pass." Even opponents don't dispute that conclusion. Bonior, for example, predicted only that "you'll see a much closer vote on our side of the aisle than we've had." In the last two years, Democrats have voted in favor of extending NTR to China for another year, splitting 115 to 87 for it in 1998 and 110 to 98 this year.

(All of the nearly two dozen Democratic legislators and lobbyists interviewed for this article agreed that some unexpected event, such as an ugly crackdown inside China, could change their expectations about the outcome of next year's vote.)

Gephardt said he had no specific idea for a new mechanism to allow Congress to pass judgment on China's human rights policies, but that he and other Democrats would be looking for one they could support. "I have welcomed the idea of bringing China into the WTO if it can be done in a sensible way," he said. Gephardt said he wanted to study the fine print of the deal negotiated last week, which hasn't yet been published.

How hard organized labor fights China's WTO membership will determine how sharply the Democrats are divided, many of them agreed. Labor invested great energy in its fights against the North American Free Trade Agreement (on which it lost) and against President Clinton's 1997 request for "fast track" authority to negotiate new free trade agreements (which it won). But the AFL-CIO and member unions have never made a major issue out of the annual extension of NTR status to China.

"It's a very difficult decision for them," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "They've endorsed [Vice President] Gore [for president] . . . and Gore is for this [WTO membership], and the degree to which they whip their members up on this will hurt Gore. And labor's interest is very strongly in . . . the Democrats winning the House. The Republican House has really been hostile to labor and they know it."

AFL-CIO officials acknowledge their dilemma, but off the record. One of their biggest interests now is to get the issues of workers' rights and environmental protection on the table in international trade talks. Labor was pleased when the Clinton administration agreed to press these issues at the WTO meeting in Seattle at the end of this month. Many House Democrats also said they want to see the trade agenda broadened to include these issues.

But when the deal with China was announced last week, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, reacted angrily. He reiterated that anger Friday at the National Press Club, calling it "disgustingly hypocritical for the White House to posture for workers' rights in the global economy at the same time it prostrates itself for a deal with China that treats human rights as a disposable nuisance."

Well-placed sources said Sweeney was walking a tight path between unions angry at him for showing too much sympathy for the WTO--he recently signed a letter endorsing the administration's negotiating position for the Seattle meeting--and his desire not to cause disruption among Democrats. His statements on China and the WTO, though strong, "aren't nuclear war," one lobbyist said, expressing hope that labor would not fight as hard as it could to block China's membership.