NAFTA win carries political price tag Vote bargaining affects other issues

November 19, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The cumulative cost of President Clinton's victory in the battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement appears likely to climb much higher than the price tag of protecting farmers or cleaning up a polluted border.

The House vote Wednesday in favor of the trade plan ripped apart long-standing political alliances, shook up a legislative process that will determine the fate of the president's domestic agenda, and complicated the shaky talks to redraw crucial global trading rules.

As the Senate began its debate on the trade plan yesterday, with a vote expected by tomorrow and approval considered certain, Mr. Clinton said Vice President Al Gore and Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, the White House chief of staff, would visit Mexico City soon to discuss the trade accord.

[Maryland's Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes announced his opposition yesterday to NAFTA.

[Claiming that the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada would impose "a very heavy disproportionate burden on the production workers of this country," the Baltimore Democrat said in a Senate floor speech that "we ought to go back to the drawing boards."

[An aide to Sen. Barbara Mikulski said last night that the Baltimore Democrat had not yet made up her mind on NAFTA.

[An Associated Press survey yesterday found 49 senators saying they will vote for NAFTA, one short of the bare minimum needed for approval.]

Congressional leaders and White House officials tried to return to normal business, but the extent of the damage wrought by the year-long nationwide debate that crossed party and economic lines was evident in the angry remarks of defeated union leaders, who said they would seek vengeance against certain House members who switched sides and voted for the trade pact.

At the same time, a senior congressional aide said, the bargaining undertaken by the White House to gain additional votes for the trade plan already has made it difficult for the president's allies to sign up supporters for his health care reform plan.

The reason? Some House members say they would rather withhold their support to see what Mr. Clinton is willing to offer them later on -- a blunt reference to the NAFTA vote-winning deals that were made to protect tomato growers, for example, or provide funding for a North American Development Bank to help pay the environmental cleanup costs.

In short, Washington's political playing field one day after the vote was littered with the shards of broken alliances and bitter predictions of nasty retributions.

There was, however, a ray of sunshine from Europe, where fears that rejection of the North American trade plan would signal U.S. movement toward protectionism. That would have doomed the still-uncertain push to complete the modernization of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade by Dec. 15.

The GATT regulates global commerce. Economists and national political leaders argue that a relaxation of trading rules and lowering of tariffs offer the best hope for reviving economies around the world.

As the House vote neared, said Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. ambassador to the European Community, the nations of the Common Market saw the debate as "a symbol and watershed in American political and economic history."

Sentiment in Europe had taken a 180-degree turn several weeks ago, Mr. Eizenstat said from Brussels, Belgium. Earlier fears of a strong new regional trading block made up of the United States, Mexico and Canada were replaced by growing concerns that a new protectionism would take hold in America that would make it more difficult to negotiate a new GATT plan.

But on this side of the Atlantic, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO and one of the most vociferous opponents of the North American trade agreement, said the deals made by the administration to win votes could bring new difficulties with the Europeans.

"I should expect that the farmers of France have been watching these last-minute deals that were made to protect crop after crop, product after product, with some understanding and some glee," Mr. Kirkland said.

Flying to Seattle to attend the Asian economic conference, Mr. Clinton called Mr. Kirkland and the two House Democratic officials, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, who led the opposition in the House.

But an analysis of the vote conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington research organization that fought the trade plan, produced more disheartening news for the Clinton White House. It found that in states that have swung to winning presidential candidates -- to Mr. Clinton in 1992, for example, and to George Bush in 1988 -- there was strong opposition to the agreement.

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