The A Team That Saved Nafta's Bacon

It's the stuff of Hollywood buddy movies. A motley bunch of misfits is assembled for a seemingly suicidal mission. The odds are long. The task is perilous. But miraculously, the ragtag recruits rise to the occasion and win a great victory.

Forget The Dirty Dozen. Meet Bill Clinton's NAFTA Ninjas, four politically bruised aides who engineered the stunning Nov. 17 House victory for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

ARISE! The team leader is NAFTA czar William Daley, the tough Chicago pol who had been passed over for an Administration post. Then there's Rahm I. Emanuel, a former Goldman, Sachs & Co. consultant whose abrasive style led to his ouster as White House political director last June. U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, who had been passed over for the White House chief of staff job after former campaign workers objected to his autocratic manner, is also on the team. And rounding it out is boyish George R. Stephanopoulos, elbowed out of the top White House communications job in a shakeup last June.

In the bloody NAFTA fight, which pitted friend against friend and allied the Administration with Republicans and Big Business, group members' weaknesses suddenly became strengths. Daley and Emanuel orchestrated the campaign from their command post in the Old Executive Office Building. Emanuel, 34, a former Israeli soldier and ballet dancer whose in-your-face style and unpredictable temper had alienated top Dems, was well suited for his role as NAFTA's chief commando. "He was the enforcer," says one senior White House adviser. The calmer Daley "was able to bring a sense of order and mission," says investment banker Wayne Berman, a former Commerce Dept. official.

While Daley and Emanuel ran the NAFTA war room, Kantor tirelessly cut deals. As the Nov. 17 showdown neared, he awoke Representative Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), a key NAFTA supporter, at 3 a.m. to regale him with details of the completed negotiations with the sugar and citrus growers. The groggy lawmaker asked Kantor to call him in the morning, which Kantor did_at 8:45 a.m. "He never left his office." says Matsui.

Kantor played hardball to win industries' support. Sugar growers privately say he issued a veiled warning: accept a deal, or the Administration would consider ending federal subsidies. The pacts with sugar and citrus growers, as well as textiles and wheat, turned more than two-dozen votes and clinched the victory.

NO SECRET. On Capitol Hill, Stephanopoulos lined up business groups to give House members last-minute reasons to vote for NAFTA. He and Thomas R. Nides, Kantor's chief of staff, turned a key vote when they persuaded rust-belt Representative Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio) to pledge his support. Stephanopoulos convinced him by producing statistics showing that economic growth in Sawyer's Akron district depends more on high-tech research labs than union shops. "Stephanopoulos knew where the bodies were, who was gettable," says one GOP strategist. One reason: He used to be top legislative aide to House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), an ardent NAFTA foe.

For Stephanopoulos, the NAFTA mission was problematic. It was no secret that he wanted the President to push health care over free trade. But he, too, got excited. "His heart was never in NAFTA, but he came off smelling pretty good," says one White House insider.

To the victors go the spoils, and now everyone wants to know what Clinton will do for his NAFTA warriors. Daley is being mentioned for a top post_and he's interested. "I won't b.s. you," he told BUSINESS WEEK. "I'd give it some thought." Clinton is expected to reward Emanuel by putting him in charge of the White House anticrime program.

Kantor's name is being bandied about as a possible successor to Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, if allegations now under investigation that Brown took a $750,000 bribe to lift the trade embargo against Vietnam lead to criminal charges. Brown has denied any wrongdoing. And Stephanopoulos, who already had a powerful position as Clinton's senior policy adviser, will have even more clout in future battles. All in all, it's not a bad ending for a story featuring a bunch of misfits as heroes. The question now: How will they perform in the sequels?

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