House Approves U.S.-Canada-Mexico Trade Pact on 234 to 200 Vote, Giving Clinton Big Victory
By Kenneth J. Cooper
The House approved the North American Free Trade Agreement last night by a comfortable 234 to 200 vote, giving President Clinton a crucial victory after a bitter debate that crisscrossed party and ideological lines for most of the fall.
Clinton and his House allies came from behind to wipe out a substantial lead that NAFTA opponents held as the week began. A bipartisan coalition of 132 Republicans and 102 Democrats prevailed over the opposition of 156 Democrats, 43 Republicans and one independent.
Clinton, speaking from the White House and joined by Vice President Gore and members of the Cabinet, praised the bipartisan House vote: "Tonight I am proud to say we have not flinched. . . . We had to come from a long way back to win this fight." The president offered conciliatory words to his opponents and said NAFTA will "expand our exports, create new jobs and help us assert America's leadership in the global economy."
The five-volume agreement would create the world's largest free trade zone. Nearly all tariffs and other trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada would come down over 15 years, beginning Jan. 1.
In the Senate, Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) and Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) have assured the administration of NAFTA's passage there before the Thanksgiving recess.
In sharp contrast to the approval of Clinton's economic package last summer, which was passed without the vote of a single House Republican, Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (Ga.), usually a confrontational leader, rallied House Republicans to support NAFTA. "This is a vote for history, larger than politics, larger than reelection, larger than personal ego," said Gingrich, who is to be his party's House leader in 1995.
Even though the outcome was no longer in doubt, Majority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), who led the House opposition to the trade pact, made a passionate plea at the end of the day-long debate. "It will cost jobs. It will drive down our standard of living," Bonior said. "If we don't stand up for the working people in this country, who is going to?"
Opposition was centered in the industrial Midwest: 59 percent of lawmakers from the seven Great Lakes states voted against NAFTA. In Sun Belt and southern states, stretching from Virginia to California, 57 percent supported the agreement.
Last night's vote culminated an odd political path of a 1992 agreement that Republican President George Bush negotiated to create a free trade zone "from the Yukon to the Yucatan." Bill Clinton tepidly endorsed the pact during last year's campaign.
Many, even Clinton administration officials, had given up NAFTA for dead, because of a no-holds-barred campaign by organized labor to kill it, and doubted the new president's commitment to the agreement until he gave an impassioned defense of the pact two months ago.
No U.S. president has lost a trade agreement in Congress since World War II, and NAFTA supporters said it was important to Clinton's ability to negotiate with the rest of Latin American and the world that NAFTA pass. Clinton is scheduled to leave for Seattle today to meet leaders of 15 Asian nations.
Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari called the vote "a direct rejection of protectionism and of those who fear the future," and Canadian Trade Minister Roy MacLaren said in Seattle that he "welcomed the affirmation of an outward-looking attitude by the U.S. Congress."
But the economic focus of the House debate was a domestic one: NAFTA's possible impact on the U.S. work force.
Supporters argued that an open trading market with 360 million consumers and an annual output of $6 trillion would increase U.S. exports, thereby creating American jobs.
"NAFTA is the right thing to do, the productive thing to do, the American thing to do. It creates a vision for the future of our country and of our work force that is based on expansion, growth and change," Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.) said.
But opponents predicted that more competition from low-paid Mexican workers would cost less-skilled Americans their jobs.
"Whose side are we on? Are we on the side of the Fortune 500? Or are we on the side of the unfortunate 500,000 who will lose jobs because of this agreement?" Bonior said, stating the populist appeal of NAFTA opponents.
Most economic studies of NAFTA's impact projected a net gain of jobs in the United States, but those estimates remained in dispute and did not ease anxieties that abound in workplaces across the nation.
With every House seat up for reelection next year, lawmakers also worried about how their votes would affect their careers. The opposition of organized labor put Democrats at risk of political retribution, while Republicans were threatened more by Texas billionaire Ross Perot's GOP-leaning followers.
As the long debate closed, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who is retiring next year, dismissed Perot and leading NAFTA opponents Patrick J. Buchanan and Ralph Nader as "the Groucho, Chico and Harpo of NAFTA."
Clinton congressional liaison Howard Paster and his deputies worked to hold votes needed to assure victory and throughout the day undecided legislators continued to break largely the administration's way, just as they had in recent days.
The Florida delegation, which had been a stronghold of opposition, swung behind the agreement after special deals with the administration gave greater protection to the state's sugar, citrus and winter vegetable crops from cheaper Mexican imports. Of the state's 23 representatives, 13 voted for NAFTA.
The Florida agriculture agreements were among a variety of special deals crafted to give hesistant lawmakers political cover from NAFTA critics back home. Opponents criticized, as inconsistent with free trade, deals to protect such crops as asparagus, sugar beets and peanuts from Mexican or Canadian competition.
Rep. J. Roy Rowland (D-Ga.) endorsed NAFTA after Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy met with him yesterday and agreed to negotiate to limit peanut butter imports from Canada to 1 percent of the amount Americans consume.
Anti-NAFTA lawmakers condemned other deals unrelated to trade issues as pork barrel politics.
"I didn't come to this House in 1987 to trade my vote away," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a chief deputy whip. "The people of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia did not send me here to sell them out for a mess of pottage and 30 pieces of silver."
Other bitter words came from Rep. E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.), a Mexican-American supporter of NAFTA who denounced unnamed colleagues for making "anti-Mexican slurs" and faulting the trade pact for not dictating the terms of Mexico's political and economic systems.
"They want a Mexican government run by the government of the United States," de la Garza said. "You can't go into Mexico and Americanize it."
Debate was disrupted twice about 5:30 p.m. by four chanting anti-NAFTA protesters with the environmental group Greenpeace who dropped fake $50 bills to the House floor. Capitol Police arrested the demonstrators for disruption of Congress and doorkeepers cleared that section of the visitors' gallery.
The unusual party alliances that has defined the NAFTA effort continued yesterday morning when supporters convened a strategy session in a Capitol office of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). Participants included Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos, and Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), a chief deputy whip and aggressive partisan in most floor debates.
That room is where Ways and Means Democrats met to determine the final shape of major tax, trade and health legislation last July in the absence of Republican lawmakers.
In other meeting rooms, Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) had worked with Bonior and other Democrats to try to defeat NAFTA.
NAFTA split the House Democratic leadership. Speaker Thomas S. Foley (Wash.), Caucus Chairman Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and Vice Chairman Vic Fazio (Calif.) backed the agreement, while Bonior and Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) opposed Clinton on the issue.
In September, House members returned from August recess stunned by the intensity of labor and Perot-inspired opposition to the trade pact. Several supporters drew back into the undecided column. At one point, Gingrich warned that counts of Republican backers had fallen precipitously.
To save the agreement from what appeared to be certain defeat, the White House brought in Bill Daley, brother of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, to coordinate NAFTA lobbying. Former representative Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), a trade specialist, was tapped to court Republican lawmakers.
Several members said telephone calls to their offices were lopsidedly against NAFTA until Vice President Gore debated Perot on "Larry King Live" on CNN two weeks ago.
Frenzel said that momentum shifted to the White House "when the vice president undressed Ross Perot. A lot of things were cooking up to that time, and that had a cumulative effect. But if you were looking for one event, you have to give the prize to the vice president."
Perot, speaking to reporters shortly before last night's vote, lambasted the White House for buying votes and predicted that passage of the trade pact would ignite a huge membership drive for his organization, United We Stand America.
"No votes were changing until the pork started flowing," said Perot, who labeled the White House's use of enticements as "absolutely corrupt."
Perot predicted that both parties would pay a price at the polls in the 1994 congressional elections, and that the anger of working Americans could lead to cancellation of NAFTA in 1995.
He also said he would oppose Clinton's health reform plan with the same vigor with which he fought NAFTA.
"I'm disappointed in my government," Perot said.
Staff writers Peter Behr, Tom Kenworthy, Kevin Merida and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company