WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The definition of power on Capitol Hill these days is to be on the White House list of House members who are undecided on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Just ask Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.
The Baltimore Democrat wanted the United States to investigate a Canadian chemical plant he fears may use government subsidies to unfairly compete with Baltimore's Vista Chemical company. Done.
He wants a side agreement with Mexico to protect the American sugar industry, including Baltimore's Domino refinery. In the works.
A third Cardin request to tighten enforcement of sanctions that protect Bethlehem Steel from low-cost Asian products dumped on the U.S. market is being evaluated for how many other votes it might gain.
If it's just Mr. Cardin and a couple of others, the change may not be worth provoking a trade dispute with Japan, a leader of the pro-NAFTA forces said. "If it's six or seven," he added, "maybe there's something we can do."
Just a few months after they seemed to clean out the White House cupboards making deals to get the budget passed, President Clinton and his top bargainers are at it again, this time in hopes of squeaking the controversial trade agreement with Canada and Mexico past a wary Congress.
Cabinet secretaries call Mr. Cardin and other undecideds daily. Mickey Kantor, the U.S. trade representative, and his deputies are trolling the halls for votes. William Daley, the White House NAFTA lobbyist, is busily arranging for lawmakers to meet privately with the president.
With only 66 of 258 House Democrats now committed to vote in favor of the agreement when it comes up Nov. 17 and less than 100 of the 175 House Republicans ready to join them, all reasonable offers for additional support are being considered.
A group of eight senators and 12 House members, led by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana and Rep. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, won a promise several weeks ago from Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy to prevent what they consider unfair competition from Canadian wheat.
Another deal is being worked out to protect the U.S. citrus industry at the behest of lawmakers from Florida.
And Mr. Clinton is personally laboring over a plan to soothe House Republicans who want him to eliminate higher fees on airline and train travel that are proposed to replace $500 million in customs fees eliminated by NAFTA.
"We're trying to work out some of the practical details now on how to deal with the reduction of the tariffs that will come from NAFTA, but I feel much better than I did on Monday about where we are," Mr. Clinton said during a photo session yesterday. "I think we're making some good progress."
Complaints against Clinton
In the Senate, which is considered almost certain to approve the trade agreement if it is first passed by the House, some supporters complain Mr. Clinton hasn't been working hard enough.
"I have a feeling the president is trying to waltz through this dance without holding the girl very close," complained Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D.
But with nearly a month to go before the House vote, Mr. Clinton is already telephoning two or three wavering members daily and meeting with small groups of undecided members -- sometimes twice a day. On yesterday morning's agenda was a session with two dozen GOP freshmen.
"We have momentum right now because the president is working assiduously in retailing NAFTA with the members," said Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat and leading NAFTA supporter.
At the White House meetings in the solemn and ornate Roosevelt Room, the lawmakers are not at all shy about letting Mr. Clinton know what might make it easier for them to vote his way.
But probably few are as direct as Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican keenly aware that he won his first election to the House last year with just 49 percent of the vote.
"I told the president I had a practical political question: What would happen next year if a Democrat ran against me on the basis of my NAFTA vote?" said Mr. King, a NAFTA supporter who went to the White House on Wednesday in search of reassurance.
"The president got very emotional," Mr. King recalled. "He said: 'I will repudiate any Democrat who does that. I will come to your district and do it.' But then he paused a minute and joked, 'Of course, you understand, I'm not going to endorse you.' "
But there is a real question among both NAFTA supporters and opponents about whether this bargaining and back-scratching is actually securing votes.
218 votes needed
The administration's goal is to gain the support of enough Democrats and Republicans to achieve the 218 votes needed to pass the agreement.
"We have yet to see a big change in the numbers signifying a vote shift because of that," said David Saltz, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, which is leading organized labor's all-out assault on NAFTA. "There's been a lot of talk about deals, but we don't see the results."
Those who are being asked for favors are also wondering about the quid pro quo.
Among them is Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who is under pressure to make concessions to the U.S. sugar industry to accommodate Mr. Cardin and about two dozen other House members and 35 senators.
The lawmakers fear that Mexico, which now uses cane sugar for all its sweetener needs, will take advantage of NAFTA to substitute cheaper corn sugar purchased from the U.S. and then flood the U.S. market with its surplus cane sugar.
Concerns of Mexico
Before agreeing that Mexico will not take advantage of this new opportunity, Mr. Salinas wants to know just how many votes he's going to get for it. And so, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, put Mr. Salinas' question to a dozen or so House members Thursday afternoon.
"We don't do things for people who aren't going to be there in the end," an aide to the chairman said, referring to the members who have not yet promised their vote.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Democrat who has 25,000 sugar industry workers in his bayou district, estimated the deal could pick up as many as 17 votes, but even he wasn't ready to firmly commit himself.
Many House members will probably wind up like Mr. Cardin, making their decision on the trade agreement's impact on jobs.
L But like his colleagues, Mr. Cardin is enjoying being wooed.
Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena called the other day, "and just wanted to know if I had any transportation problems related to NAFTA. It's not often I have the attention" of such high-level suitors, he said.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin has won two Clinton promises -- and Mr. Cardin hasn't even said yes to NAFTA yet. But the administration has promised:
* To investigate a Canadian chemical plant Mr. Cardin fears may use government subsidies to unfairly compete with Baltimore's Vista Chemical company.
* To study a side agreement with Mexico to protect the American sugar industry, including Baltimore's Domino refinery.
A third Cardin request -- to tighten enforcement of sanctions that protect Bethlehem Steel from low-cost Asian products dumped on the U.S. market -- is being evaluated.