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Richardson to Lobby for 'Fast-Track' Bill

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23 1997; Page A08

Bill Richardson has made a name parachuting into hopeless situations and beating the odds – freeing a U.S. pilot shot down over North Korea, liberating Red Cross workers held hostage in Sudan, recovering captives from Iraq, Burma, Bangladesh and Cuba.

Now President Clinton has another rescue mission for Richardson: Save his "fast-track" free-trade plan.

With the legislation in deep trouble in Congress, Clinton has summoned Richardson to return to Washington from New York, where he is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to work the same magic on Capitol Hill that has succeeded for him in foreign capitals. "Here's a guy who's accustomed to picking up a basket case," a senior White House official said yesterday.

The decision to temporarily recall Richardson from diplomatic duty is a telling sign of just how rough the sledding has been for the administration as it tries to persuade Congress to expand Clinton's authority to negotiate international trade agreements. With just a couple of weeks before lawmakers leave town, Clinton is running out of time to change some minds and meet his goal of winning passage by the end of the year. If the matter is postponed until next year, aides believe, their chances may be doomed.

The fast-track legislation would permit the president to broker trade pacts that can be rejected by Congress but not amended, just as previous executives could do. Clinton considers such authority critical to maintaining the nation's economic strength in global markets, but union leaders and environmentalists believe it will make it easier for companies to avoid U.S. labor and pollution standards.

As a result, most House Democrats have rebuffed their president, with some vote counts putting the number of his supporters within the party as low as 16.

Frustrated by the resistance, Clinton decided to call in Richardson as the two toured South America last week. They had been discussing the fate of fast track in connection with what they were seeing in Latin America.

Richardson, who represented New Mexico in the House for 14 years before accepting his current assignment last winter, began telling war stories about the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, according to administration officials. As the Democrats' chief deputy whip, Richardson was a key player in rounding up votes for NAFTA and regaled Clinton with tales of his one-on-one arm-twisting sessions.

Once Clinton returned to Washington, he consulted with Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles and telephoned Richardson on Monday to ask him to devote most of the next two weeks to the task. He will work out of the White House complex but operate "semi-autonomously," according to a Clinton aide.

"He can make a big difference because he's particularly effective in understanding what the concerns of a member are in terms of his own district," the aide said. "And he's also traveled the world to see the effects of free trade."

The White House is counting on Richardson to turn around the House, where it faces the most opposition. A bipartisan group of House members told a news conference yesterday that there are about 150 votes against fast track now and about 86 for it. "This is not going to be pushed and steamrolled through here," said Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio). "We are going to fight back with a coalition that is going to stop this from occurring and start thinking about American jobs and not foreign jobs."

Clinton yesterday focused on the Senate, where he believes he may have more support, personally lobbying some senators invited to the White House.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin will make his case publicly today with a joint appearance before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.