WASHINGTON -- With only three weeks to go before Congress votes up or down on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor seems weary but determined to pull President Clinton's biggest chestnut out of the fire.
Neither the pounding from anti-NAFTA forces led by organized labor preaching it will cost American jobs, nor the aftereffects of a bad fall that has kept him in a large back brace, appears to have daunted the Los Angeles lawyer and Friend of Bill who accepted what is perhaps the toughest remaining challenge on the Clinton first-year agenda.
Kantor acknowledges that the time it took him to negotiate side agreements with Mexico on higher environmental and labor standards promised by Clinton in his 1992 campaign gave the opposition a critical head start in the contest for public opinion. As a result, he concedes, the impression grew that NAFTA was a lost cause, putting its advocates in a hole from the outset of the national debate.
But he says now "the bleeding has stopped" as a result of an aggressive selling job headed by the president -- one Kantor says will be accelerated in the final three weeks before the scheduled Nov. 17 vote. He insists that "the intellectual argument" has been won over whether or not the U.S. economy will be better or worse if NAFTA passes, saying most objective testimony agrees that a net increase in American jobs will eventually result.
With critics having the field alone, he says, "people [in Congress] were looking for reasons to vote against. Now they're looking for reasons to vote for." If the vote were held today, Kantor admits, "we couldn't get 218," the required majority in the House, "but neither could the other side."
With the Senate considered certain to vote approval, both sides are lobbying House members heavily, and Kantor points out a critical difference in the constituencies of House and Senate members that makes this focus imperative.
Senators, having statewide constituencies, he notes, are better able to consider the big picture -- how the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada will affect the economy generally. The same is true concerning state governors, 41 of whom have come out for passage, he says, to only two firmly against.
House members on the other hand, Kantor says, are more likely to weigh the narrow impact on specific industries and businesses in their congressional districts.
This localization of the NAFTA debate has resulted in pressures on Kantor and the administration to make adjustments in the agreement to meet local business concerns. While the fast-track process agreed to by Congress does not permit amendments, Kantor says there are ways to "strengthen" NAFTA administratively that may meet some of those concerns.
The administration's NAFTA point man notes that many opponents of the overall agreement acknowledge that some trade deal mutually lowering tariffs is desirable if details could be renegotiated with Mexico, which Mexican President Salinas has ruled out.
Critics such as House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt "say no to this NAFTA, another NAFTA," Kantor observes. "Well, there is no other NAFTA. There will be nothing to go back to if this doesn't pass." And that means, he says, continued unfavorable tariffs and flow of Mexican immigrants seeking work across the southern U.S. border.
As the showdown vote approaches, Kantor also is emphasizing the threat to the United States' pre-eminence in the Mexican market from Japan, now its No. 2 customer. Salinas' recent warning that Mexico will seek a trade agreement with Japan if NAFTA is turned down gives Kantor another talking point.
To those who suggest that the White House should seek to postpone the vote to give it more time to wage the uphill battle, Kantor insists the timing is just right, coming after the official launching of the Clinton health-care reform package. With that task done, he says, the president will be busy closing the sale personally, with the public and with House members.
Kantor says the merits of the trade agreement, articulated by Clinton and surrogates, will carry the day, but "It's going to be close."