Gephardt opposition could doom NAFTA Many Democrats would follow his lead

September 11, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's dim prospects for winning ratification of a historic trade treaty with Mexico and Canada could be all but snuffed out next week by his party's chief advocate in the House of Representatives.

House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, who has been disappointed with Mr. Clinton's recent efforts to improve the North American Free Trade Agreement with side deals, is preparing to forcefully announce his opposition in a speech to be delivered a day or two after the new agreements are signed on Tuesday, according to congressional sources.

Mr. Gephardt made his disappointment clear when the side agreements were announced last month, but he agreed to hear the White House out on the issue. Now, as Congress prepares to formally take up the treaty, the majority leader figures that it's time to make a definitive statement, his aides say.

There's been no change in his position, the sources say.

"I won't say the treaty absolutely can't pass without him. But it's going to be very, very difficult," said Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat from Baltimore.

The loss of such a key party figure would be critical to any president facing an uphill battle to win support for a controversial proposal with little short-term political payoff. It comes at a time when the Republican support for the treaty is eroding, and other Democratic House leaders are lining up against it.

Majority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan abandoned ship last month, taking with him at least half of his highly effective internal lobbying organization. Democratic Caucus chairman Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, is leaning against the treaty.

But Mr. Gephardt's desertion is likely to be fatal to the president's treaty hopes because the Missouri Democrat has carved a unique role for himself as his party's most respected spokesman for an aggressive trade policy. Unfair trade practices were the central focus of Mr. Gephardt's failed 1988 presidential bid.

Looking for guidance

Uncertain Democratic lawmakers, battered by union opponents of the treaty and unconvinced by the free traders' visions of a huge North American market, are looking to Mr. Gephardt for guidance.

"Dick Gephardt is the most important single member of Congress when it comes to trade issues," said Mr. Cardin, who adds that his own position on the treaty will be strongly affected by Mr. Gephardt's views.

If Mr. Gephardt -- with his long support for protectionist policies -- were to bless the accord, he might be able to bring 40 or more wavering Democrats with him, House head counters say.

He performed this feat in 1991, when he helped persuade 90 Democrats to support House approval of the fast-track negotiating authority for the treaty. He argued at the time that he supported the concept of the treaty but would not commit to a specific agreement until he saw the details.

His terms for approval include assurances that Mexican workers would be paid a "just wage" so that they wouldn't compete unfairly, that adequate funding would be provided for environmental cleanup of the border region and that trade sanctions could be used to enforce the agreement.

Mr. Gephardt's expected condemnation of the treaty next week because Mr. Clinton has failed to meet these terms will send a powerful signal to all the Democrats who have adopted a wait-and-see posture.

Although Mr. Gephardt has promised the White House that he won't actively work against the treaty, he doesn't have to. He probably dooms the agreement simply by failing to provide his Democratic colleagues with political cover.

"These are dark days, and the darkest day will come when Dick makes his statement," said Representative Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the chief deputy whip who has had to take over most of the leadership burdens for passing the treaty. "But the treaty's not dead yet."

The odds against success, however, are already enormously high, particularly in the House.

As many as half the 258 House Democrats are considered almost certain "no" votes because they come from districts where opposition from labor unions, environmental activists and followers of former independent presidential candidate Ross Perot is overwhelming.

Most of the burden of ratifying a trade agreement originally negotiated by former President George Bush will probably have to be carried by Mr. Bush's fellow Republicans.

More confident

Republicans tend to have more confidence in the treaty's long-term potential to create new jobs by opening the Mexican market to U.S. goods. Many Republicans also represent the border states, where voters are eager for any change that will stem the tide of immigration.

Further, much of the organized support for the treaty comes from big business, which is a more natural GOP constituency.

But there has been worrisome slippage in the GOP ranks over the past weeks as the opposition forces, including former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, have stepped up their pressure.

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