It's high noon for NAFTA. As the battle over creating the largest trading bloc in the world comes down to its final weeks, President Clinton has launched an all-out campaign to salvage the much-mulled and much-maligned North American Free Trade Agreement. The White House war room is humming again. Cabinet officials are hitting the hustings, offering political cover for wavering lawmakers. And as the Nov. 17 showdown vote in the House approaches, members can hear the familiar sound of money jingling. That means Washington's version of Let's Make a Deal is about to begin.
Call him Machiavellian if you will, but President Clinton seems inclined to win NAFTA the old-fashioned way: by buying it with a last-minute blizzard of concessions. "I'm not used to being in this sewer of boutique politics," says a senior U.S. official.
Whatever the cost of victory, losing would be far worse for the Clinton Presidency. After miscalculations in Somalia and Haiti, Clinton can't afford more pratfalls on the international stage. Moreover, failure on NAFTA could abort his chance to push through negotiations that could lead to the greatest trade liberalization since World War II (table).
HARD SPIN. If NAFTA is defeated, fears abroad about a protectionist drift in U.S. policy could torpedo efforts to meet a Dec. 15 deadline for lowering worldwide barriers through the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade. Japan might also balk in negotiations, some of which are scheduled to conclude in January, aimed at producing quantifiable results on a variety of market-opening measures. Clinton has been making progress: On Oct. 26, Tokyo agreed to open its public-sector construction market. But a NAFTA debacle would cast a pall over a trade summit of Asian Pacific nations that is scheduled in Seattle for the day after the NAFTA vote. Frets Representative Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), a key NAFTA supporter: "Are we going to disarm this President the day before he goes to Seattle to talk to several Asian Presidents about trade?"
Such rhetoric is part of a political spin designed to put NAFTA over the top. Both sides say the momentum is finally swinging the President's way. But even the most optimistic supporters say he still is at least 40 votes short. To win, the White House must persuade three of every four undecided House members to support a trade pact that foes have successfully branded as a jobs-loser. "Most people would consider it an uphill battle," says White House Political Director Joan Baggett. "But it's very winnable."
To carry the day, the NAFTA brigade has adopted a battle slogan: "Whatever it takes." In one recent week, Clinton invited 65 members of Congress to the White House. Cabinet secretaries have flown to more than 20 cities over two weeks and schmoozed in more than 65 media markets.
The White House and USA NAFTA, a pro-pact business lobby, also have deluged the districts of undecided members with export success stories. Administration officials repeatedly visited Democratic Representative L.F. Payne's Virginia constituency to argue that local furniture and textile companies will reap a bonanza if NAFTA passes. The pressure helped move Payne from undecided to being an "enthusiastic" supporter.
PROMISES, PROMISES. Such aggressive lobbying would normally ensure victory. But not with NAFTA. Fed by the fervor of independent Ross Perot, America Firster Pat Buchanan, and galactic populist Jerry Brown--and a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign by the AFL-CIO--NAFTA has become a glaring symbol of job insecurity in a globaleconomy.
Backers are using scare tactics, too, however. USA NAFTA ads warn that if America doesn't set up a free-trade zone with Mexico, Japan will. At an Oct. 21 White House meeting, Attorney General Janet Reno told 100 California business and community leaders that immigrants would flood their state if the pact were defeated. The audience included companies in the districts of Democratic Representatives Bob Filner, Lynn Schenk, and Norman Y. Mineta--all either opposed to NAFTA or still undecided.
Now, the dealmaking is getting frantic. To persuade Representative Esteban E. Torres (D-Calif.) to sign on, the Administration promised that some money for a border cleanup would be used for loans to small businesses hurt by the agreement. White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III promised Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II new emphasis on community-development banks, a pet project of the Massachusetts Democrat. And Bethlehem Steel Corp., a USA NAFTA member, is holding out the prospect of new jobs at a facility in the district of undecided Representative Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.).
Lawmakers, however, are clamoring for more deals. To snare key votes in Florida, Louisiana, and the Midwest, the Administration is trying to make rules more favorable to U.S. sugar cane, sugar beet, and wheat growers. Says one pro-NAFTA strategist: "A lot of undecided members have leverage at the end. We have to listen."
NORTHERN CHILL. Knowing that they can't meet their goal of delivering 110 Democratic votes, NAFTA supporters have redoubled efforts to cement GOP backing. USA NAFTA has hired former Republican National Committee Chairman Richard N. Bond to woo undecided GOP members. Clinton even promised Representative Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) he would "personally repudiate" any Democrat who used King's support of NAFTA against him.
To some, there are signs of desperation in the White House campaign. Clinton quickly dropped a $5 fee on airline tickets--to offset the loss of current tariff revenue--when GOP lawmakers balked. And the Administration has hinted it might withdraw from the pact after three years if a study finds heavy job losses. Scoffed AFL-CIO lobbyist Bill Cunningham: "That reinstills everyone's concern that NAFTA will hurt people."
The Oct. 25 victory of Canada's Liberal Party, which considers NAFTA a bad deal for Canadian workers, sent the Administration a chilling message. "NAFTA was a big issue," says undecided Representative Toby Roth (R-Wis.). "American politicians have to take [the Canadian elections] into the equation."
The pact's foes concede that Clinton's use of Presidential powers will further narrow the gap. But for Clinton, the difference between getting close and winning hinges on how many treats he can come up with between Halloween and the Thanksgiving congressional recess. The sight won't be pretty, but that's what it may take to stave off a chain of trade humiliations for Clinton.