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'Fast Track' Backers Switch to High Gear

By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 4, 1997; Page A04

President Clinton opened a final drive yesterday to salvage his high-stakes bid for expanded trade negotiating power, mixing last-minute concessions with warnings about the dire economic consequences if Congress turns him down.

With showdown votes on Capitol Hill beginning today, Clinton and many of his top aides cleared their schedules for the week to concentrate almost exclusively on lobbying for his "fast-track" free-trade legislation, which both White House officials and congressional leaders concede does not now have the support to pass both houses.

"Fast track is not just his highest legislative priority of the fall but also his single issue of the week," said White House aide David Johnson. "You've got Cabinet people spending all of their morning, noon and evening hours up on the Hill and you've got a president using the phones as only he knows how."

The prospect of defeat has sent shudders through the administration, where officials are all too aware of the political costs both domestically and internationally. Should Clinton fail, aides maintain that U.S. credibility abroad would be incalculably damaged, while a loss would also mar what otherwise has been a successful legislative year for the second-term president.

Under the fast-track legislation, Clinton could negotiate trade pacts that can be rejected by Congress but not rewritten. Every president since Gerald R. Ford has had such negotiating authority.

The Senate plans to take up the measure today and most head-counters believe Clinton has the 60 votes he needs to beat a filibuster. The White House hopes to use a successful Senate vote to build momentum for Friday's make-or-break vote in the House, where fast track is way behind.

To assuage skeptics, the administration yesterday unveiled a package of initiatives intended to protect workers' rights and the environment from the consequences of free trade. With those concessions in hand, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) climbed aboard the Clinton effort at an elaborately staged news conference with senior administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

Daschle said the Clinton statement was unprecedented and could help turn the tide. "The days when negotiating trade agreements meant simply coordinating tariffs and quotas are gone," Daschle said. "Today, we're stitching together the fabric of entire economies. This broader scope of negotiations demands a broader strategy for negotiations. That's what this document sets out."

Under the Clinton plan, the administration would press multinational financial institutions to incorporate environmental concerns into their operations and ask the World Bank to create an office aimed at expanding workers' rights in developing countries and fighting child labor and other exploitative conditions.

The administration also would push for international trade dispute proceedings to be opened to the public. And it would make a "benchmark assessment" of labor, environmental and other policies of new free-trade partners before any agreement is submitted to Congress, with annual follow-up reports on their labor practices.

However, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and other liberal fast-track opponents belittled Clinton's proposals as desperation. "They're now trying to apply political grease to a proposal that is having a tough time making its way through Congress," he said. "What they should do is pull their fast-track proposal and go back to the drawing boards."

"We've heard it all before," added Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). "This definitely falls into the category of deathbed conversions. It's the clearest indication yet of how much trouble fast track is in."

Clinton's effort to reach out to liberal opponents could also backfire if Republicans decide it goes too far. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a fast-track supporter, said he had not seen the administration's statement but warned, "Anything that involves labor and the environment is a concern. . . . If it's troublesome, it could take down the bill."

If wooing was not enough, the White House yesterday also tried scaring recalcitrant lawmakers. Citing last week's brief stock market fall, the administration predicted that Wall Street could take another dive if fast track is rejected because removing obstacles to cross-border trade has been essential to the current economic expansion.

"You remove the president's ability to negotiate agreements to do that and you remove one of the foundations of America's economic strength," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "I think that certainly would be read negatively by the markets."

The White House is leaving little to chance. More than 30 administration officials are working full time on the lobbying campaign. Clinton met last night with a handful of Senate Democrats and plans more meetings and phone calls through the week. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to announce a plan to beef up worker training programs to help those displaced by free trade agreements. On Thursday, virtually the entire Cabinet will descend on Capitol Hill for a "public fan-out" to lobby House members.

On the same day, Clinton will fly to Texas for the dedication of George Bush's presidential library, joining former presidents Ford and Jimmy Carter. With all four supporters standing together, aides contend, that may also provide a chance to make a public case for fast track.

Staff writer John E. Yang contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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