WASHINGTON -- Although foreign policy seldom dominates election years, several simmering disputes with international consequences await Congress' return in January.

One pits House Democrats against other House Democrats. Another, Senate Republicans against Senate Republicans.That's not exactly the usual partisan breakdown for congressional struggles. But the fights are shaping up as lively ones.

House Democrats find themselves divided on China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

While the deal the Clinton administration negotiated generally is supported by Republicans in both chambers and Senate Democrats, some top House Democrats oppose it -- reflecting opposition from organized labor, long a crucial Democratic constituency.

Labor sees lowering of trade barriers with China as a threat to the jobs of American workers.

Among high-powered opponents are Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, the House Democratic whip, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee.

Congress does not get a direct vote on China's admission to the Geneva-based WTO, which oversees international trade, sets rules for liberalizing trade and mediates disputes.

But Congress must decide whether to end its annual battle over China's trade status.

Under WTO rules, the United States can take advantage of market-opening concessions China made to join the WTO only after it permanently extends the same privileges to China.

The United States routinely extends normal trade relations -- once called most-favored-nation status -- to almost every trading partner in the world. But with China, this preferential tariff status must be renewed each year.

The immediate battle among Republicans in the Senate -- actually there are two battles -- is a personal one, not a policy one. It's between friends of the leading presidential rivals, front-running Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

McCain supporters are suggesting that some top Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Republican Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, have sought to undermine McCain by talking about his fabled temper.

"Their underlying message is that John is nuts, and he shouldn't be around any kind of button that could lead to nuclear war," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., national co-chairman of McCain's campaign, said in an interview in The New York Times.

McCain supporters, on the other hand, are privately raising questions about Bush's foreign policy credentials.

Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., one of the Senate's senior voices on foreign policy, threw his support to Bush last week, calling the Texan "credible and respected."

Later that day, McCain campaign aides were urging reporters to look into a General Accounting Office report they suggested was critical of a program Lugar had sponsored to help Russia reduce its nuclear arsenal.

The dispute over McCain's temperament even found its way to the Pentagon on Tuesday. Defense Secretary William Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine, weighed in when asked at a news conference if he thought McCain was "irrational or unbalanced?"

"He is a man of great passion and conviction," Cohen said. "Very balanced, very rational."

More seriously, Republicans in the Senate are divided between those like Lugar, Hagel and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., who generally favor more international engagement; and more conservative members, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., whom Democrats have portrayed as "isolationist."

Tom Raum covers national and international affairs for The Associated Press.