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NAFTA Victory May Lead to More Political Controversies

By James Gerstenzang
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

The cumulative cost of President Clinton's victory in the battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement appears likely to climb much higher than the price tag of protecting endangered farmers or cleaning up a polluted border.

The House vote Wednesday in favor of the trade plan ripped apart longstanding political alliances, shook up a legislative process that will determine the fate of the president's domestic agenda, and complicated the shaky talks to redraw crucial global trading rules.

As the Senate began its debate on the trade plan Thursday, with a vote expected by Saturday and approval considered certain, Clinton said Vice President Al Gore and Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, the White House chief of staff, would visit Mexico City soon to discuss "how best to launch this great new era in North American relations."

Congressional leaders and White House officials tried to return to normal business, but the extent of the damage wrought by the year-long nationwide debate that crossed party and economic lines was evident in the angry remarks of defeated union leaders, who said they would seek vengeance against certain House members who switched sides and voted for the trade pact.

At the same time, a senior congressional aide said, the bargaining undertaken by the White House to gain additional votes for trade plan already has made it difficult for the president's allies to sign up supporters for his health care reform plan.

Some House members say they would rather withhold their support to see what Clinton is willing to offer them later on -- a blunt reference to the NAFTA vote-winning deals that were made to protect tomato growers, for example, or provide funding for a North American Development Bank to help pay the environmental clean-up costs.

In short, Washington's political playing field one day after the vote was littered with the shards of broken alliances and bitter predictions of nasty retributions.

There was, however, a ray of sunshine from Europe, where fears that rejection of the North American trade plan would signal U.S. movement toward protectionism. Such a development would have doomed the still-uncertain push to complete the modernization of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade by Dec. 15.

As the House vote neared, said Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. ambassador to the European Community, the nations of the Common Market saw the debate as "a symbol and watershed in American political and economic history."

Sentiment in Europe had taken a 180-degree turn several weeks ago, Eizenstat said in an interview from Brussels, Belgium. Earlier fears of a strong new regional trading block made up of the United States, Mexico and Canada were replaced by growing concerns that a new protectionism would take hold in America that would make it more difficult to negotiate a new GATT plan.

But on this side of the Atlantic, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO and one of the most vociferous opponents of the North American agreement, said the deals made by the administration to win votes for NAFTA could bring new difficulties with the Europeans. In particular, deals made to protect elements of U.S. agriculture from Mexican competition may fuel demands for equivalent protection of European farmers.