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Bipartisan Push for 'Fast Track' Bill Coming Apart

By John F. Harris and Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 28, 1997; Page A04

According to President Clinton's playbook, this fall was supposed to be a season of bipartisan achievement on the issue of free trade: Republican congressional leaders would deliver their members, Clinton would deliver moderate Democrats, and together they would have the votes to overcome the opposition of organized labor and pass a "fast-track" trade bill.

That plan is in trouble – far more trouble than Clinton bargained for as recently as a few weeks ago, according to a variety of administration officials, as well as lawmakers and lobbyists on both sides of the trade issue.

Passage of legislation to give Clinton expanded power to negotiate free-trade agreements is endangered by mutual suspicions. Republicans say Clinton looks increasingly unlikely to bring along his share of Democratic votes to assure passage, and some are hinting that the measure may be deferred until next year. Administration officials say the fast-track bill will pass this fall or never, and some privately say they worry that Republicans are more interested in handing Clinton an embarrassing defeat than they are in passing the free-trade bill.

"It's going to be tough to pass," said House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), an ardent free-trader. "The president will have to participate in that very fully."

"It looks to me like the administration is being set up for a pretty big fall," agreed a Democratic congressional aide whose boss is working for the fast-track proposal.

"I would say right now it's 50-50," said Calman Cohen, director of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a business lobbying group. "Time is very very short," he added. "And the question is, can they get to what they need to do before they go out in November."

Commerce Secretary William Daley says that as a practical matter delay probably means defeat. "It's an issue too controversial" to be voted on in an election year, he said. "It's unrealistic to think this gets anything but harder to do" as time goes by.

However, some White House officials said their fast-track prospects may be less dire than they appear. The pattern in previous trade votes, such as the 1993 passage on the North American Free Trade Agreement, is that support builds in the final days before a vote. These officials who take a more optimistic view say that in the end, the issue will come down to a simple one of pro-trade versus restricted trade. They say that as they analyze the House, there are still more votes on the pro-trade side.

Recognizing their peril, senior officials in the White House last week threw themselves into a more vigorous effort to woo Democrats.

A dozen Cabinet and senior sub-Cabinet officials were summoned to the White House Friday, where they divvied up lists of Democratic lawmakers to be lobbied. Participating in the campaign are expected figures, such as Daley, as well as some surprising ones, like Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Bill Richardson, ambassador to the United Nations.

In addition, White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles all last week hosted lunches at the White House for wavering Democrats, four or five at a time, hoping to win them to Clinton's side. A White House team, including Daley, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and international economics adviser Daniel Tarullo, is meeting most mornings in Bowles's office to plot strategy.

The need for more stroking on Capitol Hill could not have been more apparent earlier this month, when Clinton and Gore met with House Democrats in a closed-door session. At one point, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) upbraided the president because a woman she knew had lost her job because of NAFTA and had received only form letters in response to pleas to Clinton. "Aren't you listening, Mr. President?" those in the room quoted her as asking.

Clinton angrily replied that he did his best to try to respond personally to as much mail as he could and noted that he had fewer staff than President George Bush did.

Other lawmakers talked about job losses in their districts that they attributed to NAFTA and what they described as the failure of that pact to enforce labor and environmental protections. The administration has said it is willing to negotiate over the specific language of the fast-track bill to address these concerns. But this will be a delicate exercise.

"The Catch-22 here," a White House official said, "is that you only get Democratic votes with attention to labor and environmental issues. And clearly, those are the sticking points with the Republicans. But we have to build a coalition based on practicality rather than ideology."

The Senate Finance Committee plans to have its bill ready next week – the exact date has not been set – and the House Ways and Means Committee plans a hearing on Tuesday, followed by a markup of a bill on Oct. 8. Both bills are expected to modify language in the original White House version.

Clinton administration officials say they have targeted 75 Democratic votes in the House as "winnable" – a total of people who have said they are supporting fast track, leaning that way or have taken no view. But the number of hard votes in support, according to one aide, is probably between 20 and 30, and one White House pessimist said the total Democratic votes for passage in the House probably will not rise above 50 or so. Meanwhile, the number of Democrats opposed is estimated at 110 solid Democratic votes against fast track.

Republican lawmakers have kept their vote counts close to the vest, but the legislative arithmetic dictates that there must be strong majority GOP support to get to the 218 votes needed to win in the House. In the Senate, commanding a majority will be easier, supporters say, but getting the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster is less certain.

One senior House aide said the reluctance of some Democrats to come aboard so far is a way to penalize the administration for largely shutting Democrats out of its deliberations on the budget. Some of the moderate Democrats who would be expected to back the bill said they feel they owe Clinton no favors. Others argue that the bill has been written largely to satisfy Republican concerns.

But administration officials say they are learning, to their dismay, that the politics of the fast-track bill are proving more difficult than the 1993 NAFTA vote. The NAFTA issue was specific: whether to expand trade with Mexico. The fast-track issue, by contrast, is about a process.

If the bill passes, Clinton, like his predecessors, will be able to negotiate free-trade agreements and send them to Congress for a simple up or down vote. In the absence of fast-track authority, supporters say, trade agreements are nearly impossible because other countries know that what they negotiate with a president can be rewritten by Congress. The problem for Clinton is that fast-track opponents in the labor movement are just as vigorous as they were in the NAFTA debate, but business support is comparatively languid.

"This is generating heat on one side, but it's not generating heat on the positive side," said one senior administration official.

Staff writer John E. Yang contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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