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White House Finds GOP May Not Be Able to Deliver NAFTA Votes

By Ann Devroy
and Dan Balz

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

With the House vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement just days away, the White House and its congressional allies have found that Republicans may not be able to deliver as many votes as they were counting on.

As the administration was trying to get a clearer picture of the votes needed, lobbying on NAFTA shifted Thursday from the Capitol to swing districts across the country. The administration dispatched Cabinet officers to Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, California and Missouri to help offset an expected onslaught of anti-NAFTA rallies by organized labor and Ross Perot's United We Stand America.

The lobbying appeared to center around roughly 50 House members, about 30 of them Democrats.

By its count, the White House will have to pickup at least half of these genuinely undecided members.

But those efforts were complicated when Republicans and Democrats sat down together Wednesday to compare votes. The White House had assumed Republicans would produce 120 votes for the pact, and Democrats roughly 100. But during the meeting, Republicans reportedly said they would have trouble getting to 120 votes.

House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has said publicly Republicans would come up with 110 of their 175 House members to vote for NAFTA and the White House would have to produce an equal number to reach the 218 votes needed for passage. But both sides understood privately that the White House would have trouble producing more than 95 to 100 Democratic votes.

"If the Republicans get 110, we're dead," said one of the senior White House officials lobbying for the pact.

Republicans, in the Wednesday session, told the White House they want the same thing as many Democrats: as much political cover from President Clinton as they can get if they vote for the agreement.

Among the GOP suggestions was some formal statement or letter from Clinton assuring Republicans that NAFTA should not be an issue in congressional campaigns. The point is that if a Democratic challenger makes the issue of the NAFTA vote, the GOP incumbent can at least hold up a letter saying the head of his party and president supported NAFTA.

Some administration officials dismissed the idea. "We take on Perot. We take on labor. Now they want a letter. It's crazy," said one official. Nonetheless, another senior official said Thursday night, "We are looking at it." That the White House would consider the request was an indication of just how precious every vote is at this point.

A Republican leadership source, reflecting the struggle this bipartisan effort has been, said, "The White House and the Democrats have been looking at where they can get to and say the Republicans have to make up the rest and the Republicans are looking at what they can do and say the Democrats have to get the rest. It shows you what a rough job getting these last 10 votes is going to be from here."