White House close to Nafta win: Clinton has spared no effort to save the North American Free Trade Agreement

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The Independent Online
AFTER an impassioned debate which has rewritten the usual battle-lines of US politics, the House of Representatives today makes its climactic decision on Nafta. The outcome was still uncertain last night, but signs were growing that the administration's all- out lobbying has saved the trade agreement linking the United States, Mexico and Canada - and with it Bill Clinton's imperilled authority, at home and abroad.

Just 24 hours before the vote, every poll only underlined the closeness of the contest. An ABC/Washington Post survey showed the public evenly split - 42 per cent for the pact, the same against. By one authoritative tally yesterday afternoon, 204 congressmen were in favour and 200 opposed, leaving Nafta's fate in the hands of 30 members who have not declared their views.

Incontrovertibly, however, the momentum has been with the White House ever since Vice-President Al Gore's trouncing of Ross Perot, the arch-opponent of Nafta, in last week's televised debate. As waverers have come off the fence in support of the pact - including 11 yesterday alone - White House optimism is palpably growing that victory was within reach.

'We're getting there,' was the upbeat comment of Mr Clinton yesterday as he met a group of pro-Nafta governors. Earlier, David Gergen, a presidential adviser, said the White House was 'within a dozen votes' of the magic number of 218, 'and it might be a little closer than that'. At best, it will be a narrow squeak.

One thing though is sure; if he should lose, it will not be for want of trying. A couple of months ago, Mr Clinton might have been tempted quietly to shelve Nafta, an agreement struck by the Republican Bush administration and to which many traditional Democratic constituencies like organised labour were, and still are, utterly opposed.

But in the last few weeks, the President has fought for the deal with a vigour and singlemindedness whose like few in Congress can remember.

No stick or carrot has been left unused. Deals have been made and promises extended, most lately to representatives from farm states, who have been assured of measures to curb Canadian wheat exports, and to congressmen from Southern states fearful that Nafta will open the gates for imports of Mexican winter vegetables and citrus products.

The efforts seem to be paying off. Arguably the balance is held by Florida's 23-strong House delegation. Previously it was overwhelmingly opposed to Nafta, but yesterday the White House was hoping to corral at least a dozen of its votes. Undaunted, anti-Nafta forces still claim to have 220- plus votes lined up, more than enough to scuttle the pact.

Whatever the outcome though, Mr Clinton has been playing with fire. The protection he has pledged to agricultural interests here could complicate other international trade negotiations in the pipeline. A defeat for Nafta, and the signal it would send of re- emergent US protectionism, is commonly assumed to doom negotiations for the Gatt world trade deal, whose current deadline is 15 December. But victory at the price of the side deals he has struck might cause almost equal problems.

The stakes, in short, could scarcely be higher. For Mr Clinton, today's vote is a 'defining moment', where defeat would strip him of credibility, both in the Gatt talks and at the Asian Pacific summit in Seattle this week, where he will make a pitch for free trade and open markets. A win would be a huge shot in the arm for his faltering presidency.

No less fascinating is the domestic impact of Nafta. If the President prevails, it will be thanks to a majority of Republican votes. In the Democratic party by contrast, Nafta is divisive. Two of the top three House Democrats are opposed; indeed Mr Clinton will be lucky if 100 of the party's 254 congressmen vote for the pact.

(Photograph omitted)

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