As Clinton Turns to NAFTA, He Turns to Republicans

August 22, 1993|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton must feel like Alice going through the looking glass these days as the view of Capitol Hill from the White House reveals a reversed world.

In the topsy-turvy kingdom of politics, the dynamics of legislative victory in Congress are about to change for Mr. Clinton, forcing him to turn from Tweedledum to Tweedledee for support.

Where just last session he relied entirely on Democrats for victory, this coming session he will have to look to the Republicans for majority support.

Having squeezed his budget packet through Congress without a single Republican vote, passage of his next major piece of legislation -- the North American Free Trade Agreement -- will require majority GOP backing.

There is a delicious irony here: the Republicans, so recently lambasted by Mr. Clinton as partisan, are now being invited by their accuser to show how non-partisan they can be; while the Democrats, so recently proud of uniting behind their president, are wasting no time in showing how quickly they can desert his cause.

In the circumstances, it must have been music to Mr. Clinton's ears last week when Senate Republican leader Bob Dole predicted that 33 of the 45 Republicans in the Senate and half the 175 in the House would vote for NAFTA. If the president could count on even half as many of his own party he would be home free.

But, at this stage, he can't. At the moment the votes are not there to pass the bill. The treaty's prospects in the Senate are reasonable. In the House an estimated 100 members are still undecided, and it will take all the powers of persuasion Mr. Clinton and his chief trade negotiator, Mickey Kantor, can summon to swing a majority behind the cause of regional free trade.

To help "sell" the controversial treaty, Mr. Clinton on Thursday appointed as his point man in the congressional lobbying campaign William Daley, a lawyer-banker scion of Chicago's famous mayoral family and a Clinton campaign strategist who is credited with being a skilled "inside" political operator.

Mr. Daley modestly described the job as "obviously quite a challenge," but assured Mr. Clinton: "With your leadership we will be successful."

For his part, Mr. Clinton wasted no time in starting the sales campaign, saying: "The trade agreement means a better future for American workers, for American industry and for the American economy. Whether we gain jobs and whether we gain good jobs depends on whether there is more demand for Americans goods and services."

His point may have been well made, but not particularly well timed. It coincided with the release of the latest trade figures, revealing that weak overseas demand in June produced the largest U.S. monthly trade deficit in more than five years, dampening growth prospects and increasing labor alarm over U.S. jobs prospects.

"It is part of a continuing trend that [shows] U.S. jobs and manufacturing are definitely at risk," said Gregory Woodhead, an economist with an AFL-CIO trade task force.

The $12.1 billion June imbalance of imports over exports can only add fuel to the fire of protectionism, making Mr. Daley's "challenge" of gaining congressional approval of the treaty more daunting.

The political resistance reflects widespread public uncertainty JTC about the treaty. Polls show roughly a third of voters favoring the agreement, a third against it and a third undecided.

The effort to create the world's largest free trade zone of 350 million people in the U.S., Canada and Mexico with a joint annual output of $6.5 trillion has all the makings of another Congressional cliffhanger -- and health care reform has yet to come!

Ranged against Mr. Clinton on NAFTA is a coalition of powerful lobbies more usually lined up behind the Democracts than confronting them: organized labor, environmentalists, farm and community groups.

Their concerns about job loss, shrinking market share and imported pollution are acute enough to prepare them for a fight to the political death. That terminology is no exaggeration.

Members of either party -- but particularly Democrats in the House -- who support the treaty, can expect to be held accountable for their actions at the next election in November, 1994.

Pity the poor congress person who votes "aye" on NAFTA this year, only to see a plant close in his or her district and the jobs go south of the border to Mexico next year. Certainly, he or she will not be allowed to forget the vote, which is why so many are hesitating before committing themselves.

The political fact is that the economic pain of the treaty is likely to be more immediate and obvious than any gain.

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