Clinton puts job on the line again

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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS to be happening a little too often. Once again President Clinton is locked in mortal combat with Congress, and once again the wisdom in Washington is that he is laying his presidency on the line. This time the issue is free trade with Mexico, and his main foes are members of his own party.

The battle to save Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is turning into a rare spectacle, with the White House acting as if the President's political future depended upon the pact being passed.

Designed to end all tariffs on trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico over 15 years, the Nafta treaty was negotiated by the Bush administration last year. Mr Clinton expressed reservations about it during the election campaign, but after agreements on the environment and labour law were attached this year, he has adopted the treaty almost as his own.

He is faced, however, with strong opposition from the left wing of his party. When the pact finally comes before the House of Representatives for adoption in 10 days' time, it seems, ironically, that it will receive most support from Republicans. So large is the faction of Democrats opposed that it may fall short of passage by as many as 40 votes.

Defeat for Nafta could have wide repercussions. It would further undermine Mr Clinton's credibility as an international leader and severely impair relations with Mexico. It would expose the weakness of his grip on his own party members, and, perhaps most seriously, would cast an added chill over the efforts to conclude by mid-December the Gatt world trade talks.

Leading the anti-Nafta lobbying are the American unions - which fear that low labour costs will suck factories and employment south across the Mexican border - and the Texas billionaire and Washington scourge, Ross Perot. Both are sponsoring radio and television ads, and the latter is heading regular anti-Nafta rallies.

It was perhaps an indication of the White House's desperation that it agreed to field Vice- President Al Gore to take on Mr Perot personally in a live television debate. After two days of testy public wrangling between the camps on the time and place, it was agreed that the encounter would take place on CNN on Tuesday night.

In the meantime, the President and his aides are blitzing any remaining waiverers on Capitol Hill, Democratic or Republican, with inducements or veiled threats.

Big political contributors are being urged to withhold funding from members opposing Nafta. Mr Clinton is pledging to hold back his own party from attacking Republicans who support Nafta. Those who co-operate are being offered special rewards: a federal grant here, a trade protection there.

The President, weakened by Democratic losses in mayoral and state governors' races last week, will spend most of the coming days stumping nationwide for the pact. He does, at least, have a spectacular array of luminaries behind him.

All surviving former presidents have spoken in support of the treaty and three - Ford, Carter and Bush - have appeared with Mr Clinton to demonstrate their solidarity. A rally in the White House last week numbered among its guests leading economists, Nobel laureates and former Republican secretaries of state James Baker and Henry Kissinger.

'About once in a generation this country has an opportunity in foreign policy to do something that establishes the structure for decades to come,' Dr Kissinger said. 'Nafta is the first and crucial step in that direction.'

Clinton one year on, page 23