WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton squeaked through on his deficit-reduction package with nary a Republican vote earlier this year, he was criticized in some quarters for risking defeat by not taking a bipartisan approach, even though doing so no doubt would have further compromised the package.
Well, he has now taken the bipartisan route on the North American Free Trade Agreement and finds himself in another cliffhanger anyway as a result of the defection of a majority of House Democrats. White House strategists know they will need as many as 120 Republican votes to win House approval of NAFTA, and are being obliged to go to considerable lengths to get them.
Vice President Al Gore confirmed on television Sunday that the president has promised to defend Republicans who vote for NAFTA if their campaign opponents raise the issue in 1994. "We will say, 'Look, that was the right vote, that person attacking the member of Congress is way off base,' " Gore said.
According to freshman Republican Rep. Peter King of Long Island, Clinton told a small group of House Republicans and Democrats that not only he would repudiate any such attack on him but also "I will go into your district and defend you on it." King says that assurance is important to many Republicans who fear they will support NAFTA and then be done in by a Democratic opponent for having so voted.
To that end, Clinton, according to White House sources, will send a letter to House Minority Leader Bob Michel before tomorrow's vote expressing his belief that NAFTA should be a bipartisan issue of national importance, that it should not be used by anyone to gain partisan advantage, and that he will repudiate the practice if it happens in the 1994 campaign.
This letter, these sources say, will fall short of what the Republicans wanted -- a written commitment by the president to go into the district on behalf of a Republican who has voted for NAFTA and is attacked for it by a Democrat. It is modeled, they say, on letters that Republican President Ronald Reagan wrote to reassure Democrats who voted for his tax cuts in 1981 -- principally Southern Democratic "boll weevils" -- that he would back them up on such votes against re-election campaign attacks.
There is, however, a significant difference between Reagan promising cover for Democrats who voted with him on tax cuts and Clinton promising cover to Republicans who vote with him on NAFTA. For one thing, tax cuts are popular with voters and an incumbent seldom risks re-election voting for them. For another, Reagan was immensely popular in most of the House districts where Democratic House members supported him on the 1981 vote.
Clinton, on the other hand, is poison in most Republican districts and a Republican House incumbent siding with him does run risks, especially in marginal districts where labor opposition to NAFTA -- including threats of political extinction to pro-NAFTA House members -- is strong.
This particular bipartisanship is also politically dicey for the president. With a majority of House Democrats against NAFTA, the White House can hardly blame the Republicans if it fails, especially if more Republicans than Democrats vote to approve the trade agreement, as is expected. The White House is counting on 118 Republican votes and laboring to corral 100 Democratic votes to reach the needed majority of 218.
The Republican nose-counting is being done by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, and White House NAFTA strategists say he has been playing straight with them so far. But if the GOP vote falls short of that target and NAFTA goes under, it is inevitable that fingers of suspicion will point at the usually intensely partisan Gingrich as preferring embarrassing Clinton to bailing him out.
It all goes to make the point that bipartisanship is fine, as long as a president first has his own party behind him, as Reagan did on the 1981 budget votes. If he doesn't, he can become hostage to the opposition party -- and to the potential for mischief-making.