White House rushes to counter impression NAFTA faces defeat

April 28, 1993|By Journal of Commerce

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration scramble yesterday to counter the impression that the North American free-trade agreement is headed for defeat.

The reaction was forced by the widely publicized comments of Leon E. Panetta, President Clinton's budget director, who said Monday that there was not enough support in Congress to pass the agreement and that it was "dead" for now.

Aides to the president and his allies on Capitol Hill mobilized yesterday to insist that the trade pact is alive and well and will pass after related agreements on environmental and labor standards are completed in June.

"It's much ado about nothing," said U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor. "Leon was only saying what the president has said, that without the supplemental [deals] the agreement is not acceptable."

Yet some NAFTA supporters say the larger explanation for Mr. Panetta's pessimism is that the White House sees the agreement as a political risk for the president, with few political benefits. The result, these supporters said, was a defensive approach to the agreement that cedes much of the debate on its merits to NAFTA opponents, like Ross Perot.

Mr. Clinton and his top aides have seemingly failed to show Americans why free trade with Mexico is good for the United States.

"They have not made the case for NAFTA as a trade agreement," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican. "There has been a great lack of direction from the White House on NAFTA. To use a popular phrase around here, 'It's a trade agreement, stupid,' " not a labor or environmental agreement.

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