Clinton woos Republicans to secure Nafta vote: President offers to support re-election of all who help get trade accord through US Congress as narrow victory predicted

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IN A final drive to win votes for the North American Free Trade Association, President Bill Clinton has offered support at the next election for Republicans who vote for it. 'I don't believe any member of Congress should be defeated if they vote for Nafta,' he said.

The US Trade Representative, Mickey Kantor, said yesterday the White House was close to winning the 218 votes necessary to pass the agreement - ending trade barriers between the US, Canada and Mexico over 15 years - in the House of Representatives on Wednesday. Vice-President Al Gore, whose victory over Ross Perot in a television debate last week has given momentum to the pro-Nafta forces, said yesterday 'the undecided members of Congress still hold the balance'.

There is a growing belief in Washington that the trade agreement will just win in Congress, but also some surprise that President Clinton should have made it a make-or-break issue for his presidency. The President's offer will be resented by the unions and other core Democratic supporters.

Most of President Clinton's support comes from Republicans, some 120 of whom (two-thirds of their total) are expected to vote for the accord. To win, he needs to get an additional 100 out of 258 House Democrats and, since the Gore- Perot debate three days ago, he says he has picked up another 27 votes.

Given the energy Mr Clinton is putting into winning the vote, it would be a serious repudiation by the Democratic Party if he fails. The administration is also asking Congress to rally round the flag by supporting Mr Clinton before he goes to the Seattle trade summit to meet leaders from China, Japan and 13 other Pacific nations.

David Bonior, the No 3 Democrat in the House who has been co- ordinating opposition to the agreement, said he believed the opponents of Nafta still had 222 votes. Emphasising the fears of American workers, he held up a Mexican government advertisement aimed at US businesmen, which said that Mexican workers in Yucatan will work for less than dollars 1 an hour, less than a quarter of the American minimum wage.

President Clinton has countered fears of job losses and US wages being depressed by competition from Mexico by saying that this process is already under way and has little to do with the agreement.

Over the past month the White House has rounded up former presidents, secretaries of state and even former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support the agreement. But Mr Clinton won the presidency by continually repeating that middle-class Americans are working harder for more money than they did 20 years ago. For many Democrats Nafta has become a symbol of the pressure on middle-class living standards, even if its immediate impact will probably be quite small, since Mexico's economy is only a twentieth the size of the US.

Gavyn Davies, page 29