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The New Kids In Congress Who Could Block Nafta

Washington Outlook


If the North American Free Trade Agreement is to be approved, it needs the backing of representatives such as Dan Miller (R-Fla.). The first-termer from Bradenton was an executive for 19 years and, as an avowed free trader, thinks the pact offers "a lot of pluses." Yet Miller says he's "firmly on the fence" as far as NAFTA is concerned. A key reason why: During the August recess, he sat through 10 town meetings at which only a handful of constituents endorsed the plan. But dozens objected, citing potential job losses and other damage to the U.S. economy. "I find very little support for NAFTA and strong opposition," he says. "It's amazing how passionate these people are."

With the majority of House Democrats opposed to NAFTA, any weakening of Republican support puts the pact in jeopardy. GOP veterans remain overwhelmingly supportive. But enough of the party's 48 House freshmen are balking, which imperils the leadership's goal of delivering 120 of the 175 House Republicans. An informal poll of GOP freshmen by Representative John L. Mica (R-Fla.) found that 11 oppose the pact or lean against it, 14 are undecided, and 19 offer some degree of support.

ENDANGERED VEGGIES? Why the waffling? Some GOP newcomers represent districts that could suffer economically if the treaty is ratified. "It's jobs," says Mica, "meat and potatoes." Or, to be more precise, tomatoes and sweet corn. "We'd be devastated because our folks could not compete with Mexican farmers," he says.

Then there's Ross Perot, who has made defeat of NAFTA a personal crusade. Many first-term Republicans were elected by narrow margins in districts where the Texas billionaire got more than 20% of the 1992 Presidential vote. Some credit Perotnista support for their victories. Now, they're feeling the heat of the anti-NAFTA brushfire fanned by Perot and his United We Stand America organization. Miller was particularly impressed when a Perot follower at a citizens' forum in Englewood, Fla., buttressed his attack by reading from the 1,100-page agreement. "These are conservative, mostly Republican businesspeople," Miller says. "There is no way to tell them they won't be hurt" by NAFTA.

"SENSIBLE." The GOP freshmen's growing ambivalence has NAFTA supporters nervous. "They are a very important bloc of votes," says House Republican Conference Chairman Richard K. Armey (Tex.). "We are going to work with them to put this orchestrated, vocal resistance into focus." Worried Clintonites are counting on the GOP leadership to bring wayward freshmen back into line. But, as Armey notes: "It's sensible for them to be cautious. If you're talking about a close congressional race, [Perot backers] could conceivably swing the balance."

Perot's troops are doing their best to keep the wavering Republicans as uncomfortable as possible. They have distributed copies of Perot's latest book, Save Your Job, Save Our Nation, an attack on NAFTA co-authored with economist Pat Choate (page 40), to every congressional office. And Perotnistas have shown up in force at lawmakers' issues forums from Idaho to Florida. "The freshmen listen very closely to their constituents," says Perot spokeswoman Sharon Holman, "and the message they're getting is clearly against NAFTA."

Many of the freshmen say they are waiting to hear from supporters of the treaty before finally committing themselves. But, too often, all they hear is silence. "Does the Chamber of Commerce support this?" asks Miller. If NAFTA's business backers wait much longer to mount an effective counterattack, the solid GOP support that NAFTA needs in the House may be gone--and with it any prospect for approval of the market-opening agreement.EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM Richard S. Dunham

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