WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is beginning an uphill battle to convince Americans that the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement would help the sagging U.S. economy.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen held a news media briefing yesterday to send the message that the administration will be able to counter the mounting grass-roots opposition to NAFTA.
"We're in for a tough fight, but I am very optimistic," Mr. Bentsen said.
He said the deck may seem stacked against the administration but predicted that support will begin to build once the facts are out.
"You don't win the fight in Congress until you win the fight with the American people," Mr. Bentsen said.
Mr. Clinton will attempt to boost the agreement at a White House ceremony today where he will sign supplemental agreements on labor and environmental issues. The agreements are designed to mollify critics who are concerned that the pact will displace workers and increase pollution.
Then the president will fly to New Orleans tomorrow to explain how NAFTA will mean more U.S. jobs. Five Cabinet members will hit other cities to deliver the same message that same day.
Meanwhile, USA-NAFTA, a business lobby in favor of the agreement, already has launched a national television campaign sell the agreement.
As it begins the fight, the White House is facing intense grass-roots opposition to the trade deal from a broad alliance of unions, consumer groups, environmental activists and supporters of Ross Perot.
Many members of Congress returned to their home districts during the August recess only to face vocal opposition from people who fear a loss of more jobs to Mexico, as well as damage to the environment along the border.
Environmental groups have organized door-to-door campaigns against NAFTA. Yesterday, Clean Water Action, a national environmental group, pledged to directly contact 1.5 million voters this fall in 24 states in an effort to derail the trade agreement.
Clean-up money available
Taking on the environmentalists, Mr. Bentsen said the Border Environment Administration, a Mexican-U.S. group charged with
monitoring pollution, will be able to spend up to $2 billion on clean-up projects.
Part of the $2 billion commitment would come in direct contributions from the United States and Mexico, while the rest would take the form of loan guarantees, he said.
"Those are the suggested numbers," Mr. Bentsen said. "It's not worked out yet."
Mr. Bentsen and other administration members will testify before Congress this week to address many concerns of the public about the consequences of NAFTA.
Today, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich and EPA administrator Carol Browner are scheduled to describe the deal's benefits in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Tomorrow, Mr. Kantor and Mr. Bentsen will be joined by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher in selling the deal to the Senate Finance Committee.