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President Takes Blame For 'Fast Track' Delay

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 1997; Page A01

Confronted with the failure of a frenetic, down-to-the-wire lobbying campaign, President Clinton asked Congress yesterday to delay action, most likely until next year, on a measure expanding the president's power to negotiate free-trade agreements.

Still bleary-eyed from the long night before, Clinton told reporters that he assigned himself much of the blame for the inability to pass a bill allowing "fast track" trade agreements — his most spectacular legislative failure since the defeat of his health care plan three years ago. He acknowledged that he had not been effective in answering the objections of House Democrats and convincing them of the benefits of free trade. But Clinton vowed that the setback would be temporary. "This is not dead," he declared. "I will be very surprised if we are not successful in developing a bipartisan, constructive, successful approach to fast track before this Congress is over."

Facing a narrow but virtually certain defeat, Clinton called House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) at 1:15 a.m. yesterday and asked him to remove the bill from a vote that had been scheduled for later in the morning. Both men pledged to revive their temporary alliance on the trade issue once the political climate improves.

"We have to regroup and think about how to find the last few votes. I believe we were within six or eight votes of passing it," Gingrich told reporters.

In their early-morning call, Gingrich and Clinton discussed what they would say about the tactical delay, each agreeing to sound conciliatory.

Although Clinton and Gingrich generally stuck to that, some Republicans were irked by Clinton's statement that he finally gave up because he refused GOP demands that he agree to scale back aid for overseas family planning clinics in an unrelated bill in exchange for more fast-track votes.

Earlier in the campaign for fast track, senior administration officials such as Commerce Secretary William Daley had warned that the proposal had to be acted on in 1997 because it would be impossible to do so in 1998, an election year for the House. But administration officials said now their plan is to try anyway, and they intend to rewrite the legislation to make it more palatable to Democrats — hoping that such changes do not chase away the solid majority of Republicans who already backed Clinton on the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) blamed Clinton's inability to rally his own party for the defeat and said it will be difficult if not impossible to pass the fast track bill next year because of the mid-term congressional elections. "I think fast track, at this point, is unlikely. . . . It appears to me it's dead," he told reporters.

Despite a sprint of personal pleas and promises of presidential favors over the past several days, Clinton in the end could corral no more than an estimated 42 Democratic votes. Even though the bill apparently won't come up again this year, Clinton intends to keep the behind-the-scenes bargains he struck, including promises to support spending projects in individual lawmakers' districts and help them raise campaign funds.

"We will be good to our word," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "We're not going to go back and undo things that we pledged that we would do."

Clinton aides dismissed speculation that the president's inability to move more than a quarter of his party's House members to his position signaled a broader decline in his second-term political power. Instead they asserted that the fast-track measure is an isolated issue on which Clinton and most members of his party in the House have an honest disagreement.

"I think most of you know what happened," Clinton said. "We have been having a big debate in our party for several years on the question of trade and its role in our economic future." Facing a House filled with Democratic skeptics, Clinton said, "We worked hard to overcome their objections, and we didn't succeed."

But some House Democrats said that their tepid support reflected frustration with a president who they perceive has pursued his agenda during last year's election and this year's budget negotiations in a way that suggested he is indifferent to their concerns.

"The triangulation strategy is coming home to roost," said one Democratic staff member, referring to Clinton's reelection strategy of positioning himself as an alternative to Republicans and congressional Democrats.

Clinton offered soothing rhetoric for his party yesterday, saying he was trying to "unpack the politics and emotion" behind the issue. He also softened his earlier complaint that many Democrats were yielding to the demands of organized labor, and that if fast track were subject to a secret ballot it would pass. "I did not question their integrity — I questioned their judgment — and I do believe that there were some who felt that it was a politically impossible vote," he said.

White House aides said they hoped to quell speculation that Clinton is entering the lame-duck phase of his presidency by advancing new policy ideas. Among proposals under discussion are initiatives on protecting pensions and reforming the tax code, both of which Clinton may unveil in next year's State of the Union address.

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

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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