In blur of deals, House OKs NAFTA Clinton finds victory in Cliffhanger vote PRESIDENT WINS NAFTA SHOWDOWN

November 18, 1993|By Karen Hosler and Nelson Schwartz | Karen Hosler and Nelson Schwartz,Washington Bureau Staff writers Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Susan Baer contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- After one of the most intensely emotional national debates in years, the House of Representatives prepared last night to hand President Clinton a bipartisan majority ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The vote would be a huge victory for Mr. Clinton, who pushed for the trade deal with Mexico and Canada negotiated by his Republican predecessor despite tremendous Democratic antipathy. The president continued to lobby furiously yesterday to put together and hold on to the 218 votes needed for House passage.

In the end, a majority of Democratic members of Congress were expected to oppose the treaty, which would be doomed without a lopsided Republican vote in favor of the agreement.

The Senate is expected to ratify the agreement as early as Saturday.

While Mr. Clinton's battle for the agreement has been costly in terms of Democratic party unity, a victory would give the president an enormous lift as he leaves today for a summit with Asian leaders in Seattle, where lowering trade barriers is expected to be a major issue. It also would demonstrate political muscle to Capitol Hill as Congress wrestles with his sweeping proposal to reform the nation's health care system.

Most of all, the vote would signal a fundamental commitment to free trade, rejecting the prospect of a protectionist and isolationist United States and clearing the way for Mr. Clinton to press for successful completion of global trade talks next month.

"This is that magic moment" when the future of the nation is defined, said Rep. Newt Gingrich, who said the vote has symbolism beyond the trade deal at hand.

NAFTA would go into effect Jan. 1, uniting 360 million consumers in the United States, Canada and Mexico in the world's largest free trade zone. The three countries would eliminate their barriers to one another's goods and services over the next 15 years.

Advocates of the agreement claim NAFTA will spur economic growth, create jobs and improve the environment along the U.S.-Mexican border. But opponents charge that the complex agreement will cost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs as businesses rush to invest in Mexico's low-wage economy and worsen pollution along the border.

"This NAFTA is a job-stealing, tax-raising, environment-destroying agreement," declared House Majority Whip David Bonior, the Michigan Democrat who led the congressional drive to defeat the trade deal.

He and other NAFTA opponents, including Texas billionaire Ross Perot, attacked the president for "buying votes" with taxpayer money.

While administration officials denied any wrongdoing, they acknowledged that they made concessions to lawmakers worried about the economic impact on their districts. The deals ranged from breaks for sugar producers and textile manufacturers to wheat farmers and the electrical appliance industry.

"It's absolutely corrupt," Mr. Perot said last night. "The question is, is it legal? We're gonna have a lot of folks looking at it. This ought to warrant every lawyer in the Justice Department."

The charges of corruption reached a fevered pitch last night when demonstrators from the environmental group Greenpeace began throwing photocopied and modified $50 bills onto the House floor.

"Democracy is being sold," said a woman who identified herself as Katherine Schultz as she was being led away from the House gallery. "Clinton is buying votes."

Mr. Perot renewed his threat to launch a huge membership drive in every congressional district for his organization, United We Stand America, and focus on unseating members of Congress who voted for the trade pact. Organized labor has made similar threats to dissuade Democrats from voting for the agreement.

To a large extent, the House vote on NAFTA required a majority of lawmakers to overcome a fear of the unknown, taking a chance that short-term economic setbacks will be more than offset by long-term economic growth.

"I rise in support of NAFTA with discomfort, reluctance, hesitation, even a little trepidation," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, a New York Republican. "But I can't allow myself to be ruled by uncertainty and fear in the face of all the evidence of this agreement's potential benefits."

As the House agonized over the agreement last night, long lines formed inside the Capitol for entry to the visitors' gallery, where spectators could witness the debate firsthand.

Deep divisions within the Democratic Party over the trade agreement -- provoked by the vociferous opposition of organized labor -- has made the NAFTA battle a nasty, family squabble.

"Bill Clinton has defined himself in this as the candidate of Wall Street, not middle America," said an angry Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who said she might have second thoughts about supporting Mr. Clinton for re-election.

The president's expected come-from-behind victory promised to strengthen his trade negotiations in Seattle this week with the leaders of a half-dozen nations surrounding the Pacific rim, including Canada and Mexico.

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