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$4 Billion in 'Fast Track' Incentives

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 1997; Page A04

Just 48 hours before the critical vote on his signature free trade plan, President Clinton yesterday tried to lure skeptical House Democrats back into his camp with a $4 billion package of programs to help workers and communities harmed by international trade agreements.

The initiative was the second time this week that Clinton has made concessions to mollify liberal opponents, and the strategy appeared to be working as a group of Texas Democrats said they would support the legislation later in the day. Yet even as momentum shifted his way, Clinton aides acknowledged that they remain short of the votes needed for passage in the House on Friday.

"There's enough time to make up the gap," said Commerce Secretary William M. Daley. "The bottom line is neither side has [a majority of] 218 at this point. . . . It's going to go down to the wire."

The Senate yesterday voted 68 to 31 to begin action on the legislation, a day after breaking a filibuster. But the bill's foes continued delaying tactics, hoping to put off final action until after the House vote. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he will seek action on seven amendments, many of them likely to run into GOP opposition.

The fight over the "fast track" legislation has developed into one of Clinton's toughest and most suspenseful legislative battles of the year, pitting the Democratic president against his own supporters in organized labor and the environmental movement. Even as union members blitzed Capitol Hill with telephone calls and letters, Clinton and Vice President Gore spent the day arm-twisting House Democrats to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

With fast track authority, a president can negotiate trade pacts that cannot be rewritten by Congress, only approved or rejected wholesale, a process considered critical in convincing foreign leaders to make agreements.

In opening the federal checkbook yesterday, Clinton tried to address the dominant criticism of fast track – that it would result in an exodus of American jobs as companies move operations overseas to take advantage of lower labor costs.

The package, to be included in next year's budget proposal, earmarks $750 million over five years for additional training grants and other assistance to workers dislocated because of trade or technology advances, and allocates $250 million to help workers whose jobs are indirectly affected, such as those who work for subcontractors of companies that shift operations overseas. Other funds would go to assist cities and counties hurt by trade.

But aides could not say where they would find the $4 billion to pay for the programs. And they included in their tally initiatives that have been proposed by the president in different contexts, such as transportation money to help welfare recipients get to work.

"I just ask the American people to give me the benefit of the doubt on this," Clinton said in making the case for the legislation, and he predicted it would help a volatile Wall Street: "If it passes, I think it will have a very positive impact on the stock market here and around the world."

In a separate meeting with reporters, Gore said he was confident of victory, despite the pressure from labor. "There will be some profiles of courage on this vote, for sure," he said.

Critics said they welcomed the concessions even as they dismissed them as not enough. "We're disappointed they continue to nibble around the edges rather than address the fundamental concerns," said David Smith, public policy director for the AFL-CIO.

"Unfortunately, the program announced by the president today is woefully inadequate to meet the real needs of workers," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "It is merely a political fig leaf for fast track supporters."

Staff writers Stephen Barr, Helen Dewar and John E. Yang contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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