WASHINGTON -- President Clinton engaged in fierce "hand-to-hand combat" with opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement yesterday for the support of the few dozen lawmakers whose votes will decide the fate of the controversial pact tomorrow.
As both Democratic and Republican members of Congress shuttled in and out of the White House for some last-minute back-slapping and arm-twisting, Mr. Clinton's aides expressed increasing confidence that he would win the crucial ballot in the House of Representatives tomorrow evening.
"We're getting there," said Mark Gearan, White House communications director. "I think we are within striking distance."
But the opponents counter-claimed that they had the strength to block the agreement, setting the stage for a real Washington cliff-hanger tomorrow.
"I see a horse race, a down-to-the-wire, hand-to-hand battle that will be decided during the vote," said Rep.Bill Richardson, a Democrat from New Mexico who has been leading the NAFTA forces for the administration.
The House of Representatives will vote on whether to create the world's largest free trade zone by eliminating barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico over the next 15 years.
It will take 218 votes for a winning majority, even though there is one vacancy in the 435-member House. A tied vote, 217-217, would reject the agreement.
The tally also showed 27 of the 38-strong Congressional Black Caucus members opposed to the pact and five more leaning against. But three of the caucus members have already broken with the group's official position against the trade pact, and as many as five more were considered possible defections, according to Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat and NAFTA opponent who chairs the caucus.
Of those five, Representatives Alcee Hastings and Carrie Meek, both Florida Democrats, said after a meeting with Mr. Clinton yesterday they were now inclined to support the trade agreement.
"I went home last weekend and got the message," said Ms. Meek of Miami.
The administration sought to pick up the support of several congressmen from wheat-producing states by agreeing to impose quotas on durum wheat if Canada does not change its pricing policies within 60 days, the sources told the Associated Press. Rep. Larry Combest, a Texas Republican, cited that agreement in announcing his support for Mr. Clinton yesterday.
To shore up GOP support for the agreement, the president also put in writing his previous promise to Republicans that he personally would object to any Democratic challenger's using a pro-NAFTA vote against a Republican member of Congress in next year's elections.
Clinton stresses stakes
And once again, he stressed the stakes of the vote for both his own presidency and the country to a group of small business leaders.
"There is no way any wealthy country in this world can increase jobs and incomes without increasing the number of people who buy that nation's products and services," he warned.
NAFTA opponents charged that Mr. Clinton was "buying" votes. "They've done a deal with everybody but working people," said Rep. David Bonior, the Michigan Democrat and House whip who heads the anti-NAFTA forces in Congress. "I think we are going to win."
Ross Perot, lobbying against the agreement on Capitol Hill, accused the administration of using billions of dollars of taxpayers' money for pork-barrel deals.
"The White House had the last supper last night, where billions of dollars were laid on the table, " he said, referring to a dinner held by Mr. Clinton for 40 wavering lawmakers. "Thirty pieces of silver were nothing compared to this."
The only members who showed up for Mr. Perot's press conference were Republicans Duncan Hunter of California, his usual host, and Helen Delich Bentley of Maryland.
Bentley praises Perot
"I'm pleased to be in agreement with Ross Perot, who has been taking a beating on this issue, as have I," said Mrs. Bentley, who started a furor Friday when she called a radio program to announce she had been offered campaign contributions approaching "six figures" to vote against the trade agreement, then retracted her statement.
The deals that President Clinton has struck range from creation of a regional development bank to special protection for the small appliance industry to a sweetened deal for sugar producers and citrus growers.
By yesterday no member was too junior to be courted; and no district too out-of-the-way for its concerns to be given the highest consideration by the president.
Example: Mr. Clinton met with freshmen Republicans Rick A. Lazio and David A. Levy, both of Long Island, N.Y.
The two emerged from the Oval Office still undecided but clutching behind their backs autographed photos of themselves with the president. Interviewed outside the Oval Office, both appeared to be searching for a reason to vote for the pact.
"For the very first time, I'm starting to hear from pro-NAFTA constituents in the district," Mr. Levy said. "I always knew it was there, but I've only been hearing from these people in the last two weeks."
That development was confirmed by members of Maryland's delegation in the House. An aide to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, who announced last Tuesday that he would vote for NAFTA, said the 3rd District Democrat received more than 300 pro-NAFTA letters over the weekend that appeared to be part of an organized mass mailing. Phone calls to Mr. Cardin, said Sue Sullam, "are close to 50-50."
Rep. Albert G. Wynn, who represents parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, got 75 calls in favor of NAFTA and 70 opposed yesterday, said Sandy Moore, his press secretary. The freshman Democrat opposes the pact.