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Clinton Hits 'Fast-Track' Opponents

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 1997; Page A04

Laying bare his frustration with many fellow Democrats, President Clinton complained that lawmakers who want to limit his power to negotiate trade agreements are pursuing an "America-last strategy" that is rooted in ignorance of the new international economy.

"For the life of me, I can't figure out why anybody in the wide world believes it will create jobs for us to stay out of markets that other people are in, when we can win the competitive wars," Clinton complained.

The president was speaking to a friendly audience – the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which supports his bid to win "fast-track" trading authority – but his remarks were the bluntest criticism he has made of others in his party who do not support his trade views.

The skeptics are an apparent majority among congressional Democrats, whose scant support for Clinton's free-trade policy has imperiled his prospects for winning the fast-track vote.

Clinton yesterday implicitly acknowledged the uphill nature of his fight. "I still believe we're going to win it," he said, "but we have to fight every day till the last vote is taken."

Moments before he sounded that uncertain note about the trade vote, Clinton was triumphant on another subject: the latest federal budget deficit number. The federal budget deficit for last fiscal year was $22.6 billion, the lowest figure since 1974.

Administration and congressional officials earlier this month had predicted the booming U.S. economy would lead to deficit figures considerably lower than official forecasts had anticipated. But with the news made official yesterday, Clinton said he felt the urge to personally deliver an I-told-you-so message.

"Normally, I don't dwell on the past, but I think it's worth pointing out one more time: The deficit reduction plan of 1993 was supported only by Democrats and enacted in the face of the most withering partisan criticism and real political risk that cost some members their positions in Congress," he said. "Well, it's time for the naysayers to admit they were wrong."

When Clinton took office in 1993, the annual deficit was at $290 billion; Republicans refused to back his budget package that year, saying it relied too heavily on tax increases and not enough on spending cuts.

Following Clinton's boasts, White House press secretary Michael McCurry declined to answer directly when reporters pressed him on whether the budget reduction package enacted in 1990 under President George Bush contributed to markedly lower deficits.

While Clinton has been able to corral congressional Democrats on budget votes – in 1993 and again this year for a budget package he negotiated with Republicans – aides said it remains an abiding frustration for him that he has not been able to refashion his party on the trade matters.

The fast-track authority Clinton is seeking would allow him to negotiate trade deals that would then be subject to up-or-down votes, with Congress not being able to make changes. Clinton aides say without such authority, which a succession of presidents dating to Gerald R. Ford have enjoyed, foreign governments would be reluctant to negotiate.

Clinton's most potent foe on fast-track was one of his strongest allies in last year's election: organized labor. A White House aide asserted yesterday that the fast-track vote would be easily won, with a majority of Democrats joining a majority of Republicans in support, were it not for pressure from union interests, who threaten to withhold financial support in the 1998 elections.

"This is a $200,000 vote for me," the Clinton aide recounted a Democrat offering as explanation for why he might not vote for fast-track even though he voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

DLC president Al From, in remarks earlier in the day, denounced an "unprecedented campaign of political intimidation from organized interests." The DLC in recent days has spent $200,000 on an TV ad campaign in favor of fast-track.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), an opponent of fast-track authority, said in a statement that he supports free trade in concept, but that NAFTA proved that unless deals are negotiated on better terms they benefit only "those at the top" of the economy, not the middle class.

"We can't trade away our conscience with our commerce," said Gephardt, who wants tighter guarantees that foreign governments will provide labor and environmental protections.

"Walking away from this opportunity will not create a single job," Clinton told the DLC. "It will not save jobs. It will not keep a single child in another country out of a sweatshop. It will not clean up a single toxic site in another nation."

Clinton noted that other nations are profiting from foreign commerce while the United States debates. Latin American nations, he said, had more trade last year with Europe than the United States.

One of Clinton's best applause lines at the DLC, which held its annual conference here, would surely have been cheered even if he were speaking to a liberal group of Democrats. He boasted that, "We soundly defeated the Republican Party's 1995 'Contract with America.' "

But Clinton may have overstated the case. Congress passed and he signed into law portions of eight out of 10 planks in the GOP's contract.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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