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Representatives Struggle to Make Up Minds on NAFTA

By Karen Tumulty
Los Angeles Times


Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr., a senior Republican, was bombarded by opponents to the North American Free Trade Agreement during a cable television call-in show, only to be cornered at a black-tie dinner two nights later by equally adamant business leaders who favored the pact.

But in the end, his decision to vote for the agreement crystallized during a few hours of solitude at his upstate New York home, where he took advantage of unseasonably warm weather to mulch his garden and plant bulbs to brighten the view from his kitchen window.

"I came here to think about what I know, and not listen to any more arguments," he said in an interview. "It's time to stop and be contemplative and think about how all this adds up and what is best for your country."

For Fish and several dozen officially uncommitted lawmakers, the final days before the NAFTA vote have been intense, filled with consultations and confrontations with constituents at home. Most returned to Washington Monday with at least a clearer idea of what they would do when the trade agreement comes to a vote in the House Wednesday. But it was clear that for many -- perhaps most -- feelings of uncertainty and torn loyalties would linger until the last moment -- if not beyond.

As he announced his decision Monday to support the trade agreement, Fish -- a Republican who is often aligned with liberal causes -- said he had listened carefully to the arguments against NAFTA by labor and environmental leaders, who have been "allies of mine over the years in the cause of social justice and environmental protection."

But in a district that has suffered thousands of job losses, he said, it seemed that the best hope was "the vision, the promise of a Western Hemisphere trade zone."

The experiences of Fish and three other House members in the last days before the crucial trade vote demonstrate vividly how the pressure builds when a representative is faced with a choice that inevitably benefits some voters at the expense of others. They also shed some light on how different lawmakers approach a crucial decision upon which his or her political career may ride. Here are their stories.

Houston Democratic Rep. Gene Green had hoped for a quiet weekend with his family in Austin, where his daughter is a freshman at the University of Texas. Instead, he found himself at a huge anti-NAFTA rally at the AFL-CIO headquarters there.

Though he has not committed his vote, and did not speak during his appearance at the podium, it was clear that the crowd considered him an ally. "Gene Green's history is with the unions," said Gary Horton, regional director of the AFL-CIO. "This is where he came from."

For Green, the vote on the trade pact has the potential to be a career-breaker.

His election last year had been considered something of a fluke in an oddly shaped new district that had been tailor-made to facilitate the election of a Hispanic. It includes the Ship Channel, through which flows much of Texas' $18 billion-a-year trade with Mexico, but it is also the second-most-unionized in the state.

In their meetings with him, administration officials have hinted that $10 million for a badly needed bridge in his district might be made to materialize if he supports the trade pact. "I've been told I could pretty well name my price, but it's too high a price, you can't trade a bridge for something this important," he confided to a constituent at the rally.

And as he chatted with a group of longshoremen from his district, Green added, "If I voted today, I'd vote no. But I want to support the president we worked so hard to elect, to listen to what he has to say."

Former President Carter had telephoned. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit had flown down from Washington. And finally, Democratic freshman Rep. Nathan Deal opened the doors of his Gainesville, Ga., office to any constituent who wanted to come and talk about NAFTA.

In they filed -- lawyers, farmers, bankers, homemakers, airline pilots, poultry executives and apparel workers, 100 in all. And as they signed their names on a yellow pad, 52 indicated they were against NAFTA, 35 were for it and the remainder were undecided.

When first-term Democatic congresswoman Karen Shepherd finally announced her decision to support NAFTA Sunday, she chose the regional office of American Express Corp. and surrounded herself with executives of that company, Hercules Corp., United Parcel Service and Leucadia Corp.

All are companies that expect to benefit from lower trade barriers between the United States and Mexico and all have their headquarters or major operations in her Salt Lake City district.

"If we fold inward and retreat, rather than find new markets for American products and expand trade, our nation's economy will die a slow death," she declared.

But a day earlier, at a series of town hall meetings in her district, it was clear that many of her constituents did not share that conviction.

Indeed, in the past week, the number of NAFTA-related telephone calls to her office had increased six-fold. "It's almost eerie, they're so evenly divided," Shepherd said. "I feel absolutely equal pressure on both sides."

For Shepherd and other legislators, the NAFTA debate has been a painful lesson in the difference between the certainties of campaign rhetoric and the hard realities of legislating.

"We don't have a perfect choice. It's not possible to know for certain which is best and I'll be making my best call," she said. "It's a lot harder to vote than it is to just to have opinions. Voting is like death: It's absolutely final."