Why Clinton Could Let Nafta Die Of Neglect

When Clintonites sing the praises of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the words are right, but the music lacks passion. And the shortage of conviction at the White House could spell serious trouble for the pact. As an embattled Bill Clinton seeks to sell the trade deal to wary congressional Democrats, key political aides are questioning just how hard or quickly he should push.

The immediate issue is timing. When Congress returns after Labor Day, lawmakers will have at most three months left in the session to deal with both NAFTA and health-care reform. Some top Clinton political strategists believe health care is the Democrats' single best issue and argue that the President must make an all-out push for reform to revive support among core party constituencies. If that means delaying the trade pact, so be it. "The folks who went through the campaign with Clinton think health care, not NAFTA, is the President's bellwether issue, now that the budget is done," says one Administration insider.

LOST LABOR? Delay may equal death for NAFTA. It would also allow the pact's foes, from Ross Perot to the AFL-CIO, extra months to organize, a prospect that gives free traders the willies. "Clinton can't afford to lose NAFTA," says C. Fred Bergsten of the Institute of International Economics.

That argument leaves a lot of Democrats cold. Majority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), a NAFTA foe with close ties to unions, got 100 colleagues to sign a July 27 letter urging the White House to delay the submission of NAFTA until Congress completes work on health care.

Administration sources say White House policy adviser George R. Stephanopoulos and outside political strategist Paul E. Begala also argue that health care should take precedence. "Bonior was more than adequately representing Paul's views on the subject," says one Hill Democrat. Begala, one of the architects of Clinton's campaign, denies any involvement in the Bonior initiative. "I believe the only way to a wealthier nation is through free trade," he declares. "We have to do both NAFTA and health care this fall." But, he adds, "I make no bones about my belief that reform of the health-care system...has to be the most important priority we have."

It will take more than two cheers for free trade to push the pact through Congress. Negotiators have just about wrapped up side accords designed to placate environmentalists and unions. But even if the pact provides generous benefits for displaced workers, many Clintonites think that labor is a lost cause.

GOP HELPERS. That makes it tough to find the necessary 218 House votes. The Administration can count on just 100 Democrats--and that could dwindle if voters berate members for the budget deal during the recess. "A lot depends on the reaction back home," says a senior Administration adviser. "We could be approaching a meltdown."

The need for heavy GOP support has led the White House to recruit a Republican as deputy to Chicago lawyer William Daley, who has been offered the post of top NAFTA salesman. Leading candidates are Nicholas Calio, a lobbyist in the Bush White House, and Josh Bolten, former minority trade counsel for the Senate Finance Committee.

The NAFTA sales team has its work cut out for it. Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen and U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor are going all out to muster support, but Clinton's commitment remains a question mark. In the list of Administration priorities that closed his Aug. 3 economic address to the nation, the President failed even to mention the pact. If the split within the Administration keeps Clinton from getting firmly behind NAFTA, the trade deal could wind up dead in the waters of the Rio Grande.