WASHINGTON -- After long weeks of bargaining and cajolery, Bill Clinton is poised to record one of the most significant victories of his young presidency in tonight's showdown vote in the House on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Yesterday, for the first time, a flurry of new commitments put Mr. Clinton ahead of the NAFTA opponents in public commitments. And as the day wore on, the president's lead appeared to be widening.
Mr. Clinton declared in a television interview last night that he "will be surprised" if the agreement doesn't gain approval.
Congressional leaders of the drive to defeat ratification of the trade agreement, which would create a free trade zone linking Canada, the United States and Mexico, insisted that they have enough private commitments from House members to prevail.
But with some former opponents beginning to switch sides, last week's optimism vanished from the anti-NAFTA camp.
It was replaced by bitterness and charges that the White House has resorted to buying votes with all the currency at its disposal.
"We're trying to withstand a firestorm of raw political power," said David Saltz, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, the labor federation that has made defeat of the trade agreement a national grass-roots crusade.
Last-minute trade concessions to Florida agricultural interests worried about Mexican tomatoes and other vegetables are believed to have inspired a switch of as many as 10 previously negative votes. This put Mr. Clinton within one or two votes of the 218 he needs.
"It's a complete turnabout," said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat who predicted that 15 of his delegation colleagues would support the trade deal, compared with earlier estimates of five or less.
'We're getting there'
"We're getting there," the president told reporters in the midst of his final 36 hours of nearly nonstop lobbying. "I never say [there are enough votes] until they're counted, you know, but I feel good today. We're getting there."
If the House approves the agreement tonight, it will go to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved next week by a more comfortable margin.
White House aides are predicting that the administration is likely to prevail in the House by what they call a "Clinton landslide," that is, a one- or two-vote margin, the same as in this year's budget fight.
Even former President George Bush, who negotiated the original trade agreement, was brought into the lobbying effort as decision time on NAFTA neared.
Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who said he had received both a letter and a phone call from Mr. Bush, announced that the appeal failed with him because he was unable to overcome his long-standing reservations about the trade agreement.
Nonetheless, Mr. Weldon predicted that Mr. Clinton would "succeed, because you can't go up against someone who has unlimited goodies."
Perot camp gloomy
A sense of gloom also pervaded an afternoon news conference by Texas billionaire Ross Perot and other conservative foes of the trade agreement, including former GOP presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Maryland Republican who attended the Perot conference, argued that the trade agreement illegally intrudes on the sovereignty of U.S. courts.
"If the fact of mindless, godless communism raised fears in the heart of America, I would tell them that the face of mindless, godless capitalism that I have seen exposed on this Hill this week is equally fearful," Mrs. Bentley said. "And right now it seems to be winning."
An Associated Press survey of publicly committed House members yesterday put the tally 209 in favor of the treaty and 199 opposed, with 27 members still officially undecided.
That marked the first time since Mr. Clinton kicked off his campaign for NAFTA in September that he was ahead in any public or private count.
In part, the gain reflected a calculated strategy of announcing the names of long-time supporters as if they were new converts, and persuading opponents to keep their positions private.
But there were also genuine converts and newly won supporters among the dozen or so members who came forward yesterday.
They included Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, who had been leaning heavily against the agreement but came under some powerful persuasion from Mr. Gore, a fellow Tennessean.
The congressman announced his change of heart with the vice president at his side, explaining later he was convinced that the issue had become "more than NAFTA" and that the administration's ability to go forward with health care reform, welfare reform, crime legislation and other initiatives were on the line.
The president's extraordinary promise of political protection to Republican House members who might be attacked for their NAFTA support in next year's campaign has also helped him shore up votes.
The protection pledge is to be contained in a letter from the president to Republican leaders.
By far the biggest crop of new votes from a single deal appeared likely to result from Mr. Clinton's promise to the Florida delegation to strictly enforce NAFTA's protections against the dumping of Mexican vegetables, especially tomatoes.
To hear the latest on tonight's NAFTA vote in the House of Representatives, call Sundial, the Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (or 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6100 after you hear the greeting. The information will be updated throughout the day and night.
When: Probably between 8 and 10 p.m. today. If it passes the House, a Senate vote is expected next week.
Head Count: As of last night, just over two dozen of 434 members were still undecided. The rest were split almost even between those who were were solidly in favor of NAFTA or leaning that way and those against. But the momentum was clearly with pro-NAFTA forces.
What's at stake: For Bill Clinton, an awful lot politically. He needs to show he can get a Democrat-controlled Congress to follow his lead in creating the world's largest free trade zone. NAFTA would eliminate trade barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico over the next 15 years. But the biggest economic ramification of passage may be the leverage it would give the president to force America's huge Asian trading partners to lower their trade barriers.
TV COVERAGE: TV: CSPAN and CNN will cover vote.