WASHINGTON -- Four weeks after saying that he would be surprised if he voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer joined Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin yesterday in announcing support for the pact -- two of six Democrats to do so.
The two Maryland representatives held a joint news conference, one of numerous Capitol Hill NAFTA events staged by supporters and opponents as preliminaries to the day's main bout, the debate between Vice President Al Gore and NAFTA opponent Ross Perot.
With the White House trying to build momentum for the Nov. 17 vote in the House, Mr. Cardin, Mr. Hoyer, Al Swift of Washington, Dan Glickman of Kansas and Bob Clement of Tennessee all announced they were backing the controversial trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. After the debate, Rep. Jim Bacchus of Florida said he also would vote for the treaty.
House members on both sides of the debate claimed they had the votes to prevail, while House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a NAFTA supporter, said the chances of passage were "50-50."
Mr. Hoyer's decision was important symbolically for the White House and NAFTA supporters because of his position in the House leadership as chairman of the Democratic Caucus. He became the third of the top five House Democratic leaders to support the deal, joining Mr. Foley of Washington and California Rep. Vic Fazio, vice-chairman of the caucus. Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan are working to defeat NAFTA.
Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Cardin said the timing of their announcements was not influenced by the White House, but rather by the fact that Mr. Cardin had to cast a vote yesterday in the Ways and Means Committee on NAFTA's implementing legislation. Mr. Hoyer said he decided to make public his decision at the same time as Mr. Cardin's announcement because they have long been political allies.
Both men had come under strong pressure, much of it from unions, to oppose the agreement, which would eliminate most trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada over 15 years.
Mr. Hoyer read a four-page statement acknowledging the job losses that labor unions have already suffered. "However, the global economy is a reality that we can't make go away," he said. "Defeat of NAFTA will not change that reality."
He said the "daily shifts . . . regarding job losses and creation will go on. Regardless of what happens to NAFTA, our responsibility is to work to ensure the growth of our economy." He said later that his support boiled down to reaching the twin conclusions that the predicted job losses and gains were inflated and that NAFTA would open up markets for the United States in Mexico and Latin America.
For Mr. Cardin, who was courted assiduously by the White House, the decision came down to whether there would be a net gain or loss of jobs in his district. He cited several companies, including McCormick Spice, Bethlehem Steel, Armco Steel and RTKL Associates, as firms whose employment should increase.
On the other hand, he said, "I have been given no information that would lead me to conclude that there would be any job loss in my region as a result of the NAFTA agreement. I agree with Congressman Hoyer, there is going to be job loss in our community with or without NAFTA, and we need to have a trade strategy that's sensitive to the fact that there are dislocations. But I don't believe that NAFTA [would cause] those dislocations."
For weeks, Mr. Cardin had refused to say whether he was leaning for or against the agreement, while Mr. Hoyer had made it plain that he was leaning against it. Reflecting the struggle, he remained undecided until yesterday morning on his stand and on the timing of an announcement, an aide said.
Mr. Cardin and Mr. Hoyer have long relied on unions for political support, and while Mr. Cardin's Baltimore seat is considered safe, Mr. Hoyer's Southern Maryland seat is not. He was shifted from Prince George's County into Southern Maryland by the redistricting in 1992 and won re-election with only 55 percent of the vote, despite outspending his Republican opponent 6-1.
In his negotiations with the White House, Mr. Cardin said that he sought and got a U.S. probe of a Canadian chemical plant he fears may be using government subsidies to unfairly compete with Baltimore's Vista Chemical Co.; that he sought the side agreement with Mexico on the sugar industry, which has been completed; and that he sought tightened enforcement of sanctions that protect Bethlehem Steel from low-cost Asian products.
He said yesterday that he is satisfied that the administration will enforce U.S. trade laws. But Mr. Cardin denied that his vote for NAFTA is contingent on any quid pro quo, insisting it is based on the conclusion that the pact will create more jobs in his district.