WASHINGTON -- Even as the entire Clinton White House is mobilized to push health care reform, this week the president will turn up the heat on an entirely different issue, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"This is NAFTA week," one White House aide said yesterday. "The president is going to do all he can."
Lagging behind in congressional support, President Clinton has scheduled NAFTA-related activities through the week, beginning today when he will participate in a satellite teleconference organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Tomorrow, he'll hold another pro-NAFTA ceremony in the East Room, and on Wednesday the treaty will be sent from the White House to Congress. That act will officially start the process toward ratification or rejection of the treaty. A vote Nov. 17 is scheduled in the House of Representatives.
On Thursday, the president is scheduled to travel to the Louisville, Ky., area to speak about U.S. exports, which he says will increase dramatically under the agreement to remove trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada. The next day, Mr. Clinton and congressional leaders of both parties are to hold talks on the pact.
Mr. Clinton kicked off this blitz three days ago in Boston, at the re-dedication of the John F. Kennedy museum. "Let us not send a signal by defeating this agreement that we are turning our backs on our neighbors and the rest of the world," the president said, using foreign policy and economic arguments.
Yesterday, Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia gave Mr. Clinton grudging praise for that speech, but said the president needs to do more. "I wish he had gone to Baltimore to deal with NAFTA, not health care," Mr. Gingrich said, referring to Mr. Clinton's speech Thursday at the Johns Hopkins University. "We're not going to deal with health care this year."
The president has been criticized by Republicans and pro-NAFTA Democrats for his tardy start in selling NAFTA to the American people. A vacuum was left that organized labor, which fears job losses to Mexico, and Ross Perot, another ardent foe of the agreement, were only too happy to fill.
With their help, NAFTA's opponents in Congress seized the momentum. And though, he has made up some ground, the president appears to be about 50 votes short in the House.
"It's hand-to-hand combat out there now," said Rep. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who supports the treaty. "We're still going uphill, but I believe we are going to win it."
According to aides, Mr. Clinton said he didn't feel he could begin fighting for NAFTA, which was negotiated by President George Bush, until the side agreements on environmental and labor conditions had been hammered out.
In addition, some of the president's top advisers were reluctant to have him expend any personal capital on this issue at all.
Others, such as Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, argued that NAFTA makes good economic sense for the United States and that having Mr. Clinton take a pro-business stance on an issue like NAFTA would be delivering on his campaign year pledge to be a "different kind of Democrat."
Eventually, the president sided with Mr. Bentsen and his chief trade official, Mickey Kantor. The president apparently reached the conclusion that despite the criticism that he's trying to do way too much in his first year in office, leading the fight on NAFTA is more likely to help, not hurt, the rest of his agenda.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui, a pro-NAFTA Democrat from California, agrees with this theory. If the treaty passes, he says, Mr. Clinton would justifiably get most of the credit. In the circular world of modern politics, this would prompt positive news coverage, which in turn will help his public approval ratings. High approval ratings entering 1994 -- an election year -- would then help Mr. Clinton sway congressional votes on the issue he really cares about.
If, on the other hand, the treaty is killed by Democrats in Congress, criticism of Mr. Clinton would inevitably lower Mr. Clinton's approval rating and thus might encourage fence-sitting members of Congress to shy away from Mr. Clinton's sweeping health care proposals.
"It [NAFTA] was there when we came in," said one White House aide. "You're in a fight whether you want to be or not. The only question is whether you're going to fight back."
The president first signaled he understood this on Sept. 14, when he appeared in the East Room with former Presidents George Bush, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter and dazzled his predecessors with his spirited defense of the treaty.
Since then, the White House has unleashed a Madison Avenue '' lobbying blitz on the U.S. public, while the president twists the arms of members of Congress in private.
In a national advertising campaign, former Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca tells Americans he's been concerned with job loss for a long time. But, he says: "It's a no-brainer: If we say yes to NAFTA, we say yes to jobs."
Meanwhile, the president has met with dozens of wavering lawmakers, offering well-tailored individual arguments -- and vinegar as well as honey. To Hispanic members from California, Mr. Clinton has argued that rejecting the treaty now might destabilize Mexico's reform-minded government. To Republicans worried that pro-labor Democratic challengers will attack them in marginal districts for supporting NAFTA, Mr. Clinton has offered to personally repudiate such Democrats.
"He's going to have to build a lot of federal buildings and bridges, I'm afraid," quipped former New York Rep. Barber B. Conable, a Republican who supports NAFTA. "And name them after members of Congress."