Clinton calls on business leaders to lobby for trade agreement Uphill battle looms for House support

November 02, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton urged business executives yesterday to be missionaries for the North American Free Trade Agreement, warning that members of Congress would "run away" from the pact in great numbers unless they sense a close House vote on Nov. 17.

"If they think it is close, I think we will win," said Mr. Clinton, seeking the executives' help in pressuring House members to support the agreement.

In the latest blow to the agreement's congressional prospects, Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., an ally of organized labor, particularly autoworkers, told Mr. Clinton yesterday that he could not support the pact because it did not adequately address labor and environmental concerns. He called on Mr. Clinton to scrap the agreement.

Recent congressional head counts suggest that as many as 100 members in the House remain undecided, depriving both proponents or opponents of the 218 votes needed to decide the fate of the agreement. The treaty would create the world's largest free trade zone with 360 million consumers in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The treaty faces its toughest battle in the House. The Senate is expected to approve it.

Many Democratic members of Congress have complained publicly that Mr. Clinton has allowed opponents of the trade pact too much time to attack during recent months before launching his own pro-NAFTA lobbying effort. But he made it clear yesterday in a televised town meeting organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and linked to business audiences in 250 cities across the nation that he is now fully engaged in winning approval for the agreement, which was originally negotiated during the Bush administration.

He set the stakes high, saying:

* If NAFTA is approved: vigorous and sustained U.S. economic growth with new job creation; the spread of free trade across the world; enhancement of democracy throughout Latin America; a reduction of illegal Mexican immigration; closer U.S.-Mexican cooperation on drug interdiction.

"This is a huge diplomatic, foreign policy and economic issue for America," he said. "You simply cannot divide domestic and foreign policy anymore as you once could. This is a major thing for the United States."

* If NAFTA is rejected: a reduction of U.S. economic opportunity; a surge of European and Japanese investment into Mexico and the rest of Latin America; a loss of U.S. diplomatic "leverage" with international trading partners.

"Without [it], we're not going to be able to sell our products, we're not going to be able to create more jobs, we're not going to be able to see our workers' incomes go up," he warned.

Its rejection also would be a personal defeat for Mr. Clinton at a time when he needs all the political clout he can muster to push another major, controversial issue -- health care reform -- through Congress.

Mr. Clinton speculated yesterday that if a secret congressional ballot were held now, NAFTA would be approved, but he made it clear that he had less confidence about the outcome of a public vote, given the political pressure from the agreement's powerful opponents, including organized labor and maverick billionaire Ross Perot.

"I say that not to criticize anyone or to put anyone down, but to recognize that the pressures against NAFTA are enormous." he said.

Urging his business audience to deliver to Congress the message that the United States could "compete and win" against Mexico's low-wage economy, he said: "We are not going to turn tail and run. We have not given up on America . . . The idea that America is just going to shrivel up if we adopt this trade agreement is ridiculous."

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