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Gephardt Bets on Slowing Down the Fast Track

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, October 5 1997; Page C01


Don't look now, but that redheaded man who is breathing fire is really Democrat Dick Gephardt, minority leader of the House and presidential possibility. He's supposed to be plodding and dull, almost as wooden as, yes, Al Gore. But that was before he was seized by his new issue, "fast track" authority for the president to negotiate trade agreements such as NAFTA with Chile and other South American countries. Now he's a man possessed.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney calls him "the new Gephardt" and talks about the galvanizing speech the Missouri Democrat gave before labor's recent convention. "For the first time, he is showing emotion," says Sweeney.

Labor is, of course, very much on Gephardt's side in his opposition to "fast track." So are liberals, environmentalists, free-trade Democrats and those Republicans who agree that trade treaties should reflect U.S. values and that safeguards for workers' rights and the environment should be at the core of treaties and not in side agreements.

During the stormy passage of NAFTA, guarantees of living wages, better living conditions and environmental improvements were liberally proffered. In his talks around the country, Gephardt shows slides of squalor and filth, cardboard houses, raw sewage and big-eyed children who can't go to school – the Mexican government provides teachers, but not school buildings or supplies. Parents who make $30 a week in the border factories (maquiladoras) cannot afford school supplies. Mexico has good environmental and labor laws on the books. They just aren't enforced. Promises that things would be better abound in side agreements. They also aren't being enforced.

"People in bad parts of the Bronx are living in luxury compared with people living on the border," Gephardt says. His guide told him, "You have to come here and smell the stench to know what's really going on."

Advocates of extending the president's authority to negotiate such treaties say that people who live in parts of Mexico without factories and jobs regard 70 cents an hour as unimaginable wealth. These advocates argue that being decent costs the United States too much: Other, less scrupulous nations will slip in and sign profitable trade treaties while we dither.

Gephardt, in an office interview, hands around color snapshots of people living in cartons that once held washing machines they couldn't afford to buy. He talks urgently about spreading democracy in countries we trade with. He puts fast track in the context of China and South Africa. We accord China, a major human rights violator, "most favored nation" (MFN) trade status. Gephardt voted against it, as did more House members than ever this year. In the 1980s, Congress, following the lead of the Black Caucus, adopted sanctions against South Africa's apartheid government. The lobbies resounded with warnings of fearful losses for U.S. companies while foreigners reaped rich contracts with the dictators. But Nelson Mandela was let out of jail and South Africa is now a democracy with which we do a large, guilt-free business.

MFN has not softened China's heart toward its dissidents or citizens who insist on worshiping God.

"It's a moral issue," says Gephardt, an Eagle Scout who isn't bothered by being earnest.

Fast track has another virtue for a would-be national candidate. It is easy to understand and it embodies basic beliefs and common sense. And his putative rival, the vice president, is locked in on the administration's trade-is-everything, there-is-no-

right-or-wrong-in-foreign-policy position.

"Gephardt was dead as a dinosaur six months ago," a visiting businessman told an administration official. "This thing has revived him."

Gephardt will not discuss the politics of his high-profile dispute with Clinton. But he has obvious advantages at present over Gore. For one thing, Gephardt has not had to hire two lawyers, as Gore did, to explain campaign fund-raising activities. Nor does he have an incense cloud over his head: Ever since the disclosure of his attendance at the Buddhist temple fund-raising event in Los Angeles, Gore has been haunted by the sound of temple bells and the swish of saffron robes. His reputation as the most savvy man in the administration, steering Clinton past temptations and danger, worked against him. How could such a smart man not know he was at a fund-raiser? Take away his impeccability, and he has to build a whole new image.

House Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.), Gephardt's chief aide in the fast track fight, thinks they can carry the day. He estimates that 75 percent of the Democratic caucus stands with them. "If we can't be for workers' rights, a living wage and protecting the environment, then what the hell is the party for?" Bonior asks rhetorically.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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