WASHINGTON -- After one of the most intensely emotional national debates in years, the House of Representatives prepared last night to hand President Clinton a bipartisan majority ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The vote would be a huge victory for Mr. Clinton, who pushed for the trade deal with Mexico and Canada negotiated by his Republican predecessor despite tremendous Democratic antipathy. The president continued to lobby furiously yesterday to put together and hold on to the 218 votes needed for House passage.
In the end, a majority of Democratic members of Congress were expected to oppose the treaty, which would be doomed without a lopsided Republican vote in favor of the agreement.
The Senate is expected to ratify the agreement as early as Saturday.
While Mr. Clinton's battle for the agreement has been costly in terms of Democratic party unity, a victory would give the president an enormous lift as he leaves today for a summit with Asian leaders in Seattle, where lowering trade barriers is expected to be a major issue. It also would demonstrate political muscle to Capitol Hill as Congress wrestles with his sweeping proposal to reform the nation's health care system.
Most of all, the vote would signal a fundamental commitment to free trade, rejecting the prospect of a protectionist and isolationist United States and clearing the way for Mr. Clinton to press for successful completion of global trade talks next month.
"This is that magic moment" when the future of the nation is defined, said Rep. Newt Gingrich, who said the vote has symbolism beyond the trade deal at hand.
NAFTA would go into effect Jan. 1, uniting 360 million consumers in the United States, Canada and Mexico in the world's largest free trade zone. The three countries would eliminate their barriers to one another's goods and services over the next 15 years.
Advocates of the agreement claim NAFTA will spur economic growth, create jobs and improve the environment along the U.S.-Mexican border. But opponents charge that the complex agreement will cost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs as businesses rush to invest in Mexico's low-wage economy and worsen pollution along the border.
"This NAFTA is a job-stealing, tax-raising, environment-destroying agreement," declared House Majority Whip David Bonior, the Michigan Democrat who led the congressional drive to defeat the trade deal.
He and other NAFTA opponents, including Texas billionaire Ross Perot, attacked the president for "buying votes" with taxpayer money.
While administration officials denied any wrongdoing, they acknowledged that they made concessions to lawmakers worried about the economic impact on their districts. The deals ranged from breaks for sugar producers and textile manufacturers to wheat farmers and the electrical appliance industry.
"It's absolutely corrupt," Mr. Perot said last night. "The question is, is it legal? We're gonna have a lot of folks looking at it. This ought to warrant every lawyer in the Justice Department."
The charges of corruption reached a fevered pitch last night when demonstrators from the environmental group Greenpeace began throwing photocopied and modified $50 bills onto the House floor.
"Democracy is being sold," said a woman who identified herself as Katherine Schultz as she was being led away from the House gallery. "Clinton is buying votes."
Mr. Perot renewed his threat to launch a huge membership drive in every congressional district for his organization, United We Stand America, and focus on unseating members of Congress who voted for the trade pact. Organized labor has made similar threats to dissuade Democrats from voting for the agreement.
To a large extent, the House vote on NAFTA required a majority of lawmakers to overcome a fear of the unknown, taking a chance that short-term economic setbacks will be more than offset by long-term economic growth.
"I rise in support of NAFTA with discomfort, reluctance, hesitation, even a little trepidation," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, a New York Republican. "But I can't allow myself to be ruled by uncertainty and fear in the face of all the evidence of this agreement's potential benefits."
As the House agonized over the agreement last night, long lines formed inside the Capitol for entry to the visitors' gallery, where spectators could witness the debate firsthand.
Deep divisions within the Democratic Party over the trade agreement -- provoked by the vociferous opposition of organized labor -- has made the NAFTA battle a nasty, family squabble.
"Bill Clinton has defined himself in this as the candidate of Wall Street, not middle America," said an angry Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who said she might have second thoughts about supporting Mr. Clinton for re-election.
The president's expected come-from-behind victory promised to strengthen his trade negotiations in Seattle this week with the leaders of a half-dozen nations surrounding the Pacific rim, including Canada and Mexico.
NAFTA opponents had argued that rejection of the trade deal would make it easier for Mr. Clinton to strike a tough negotiating posture.
The president, however, pleaded with lawmakers not to undercut him with a humiliating defeat that would raise questions around the world about his ability to deliver on his promises.
Other NAFTA proponents, including former presidents and secretaries of state, warned that NAFTA represented a test of whether the United States would turn inward now that the Cold War has ended.
"This time, the world is really watching what we do, because the stakes are enormous," said Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. NAFTA, the Asian summit and the completion next month of global free trade talks under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade "will shape global trade policy for the next decade," he said.
The bipartisan lobbying effort on behalf of NAFTA shattered all kinds of precedents in a town so recently mired in bitter partisan gridlock.
Mr. Gingrich, of Georgia, the acid-tongued Republican whip, who is set to become House GOP leader in 1995, joined forces with Democratic whips and the White House in far closer cooperation than Mr. Gingrich ever supplied to President George Bush.
NAFTA opponents in both parties professed to be appalled.
"If this is bipartisanship, I want partisanship back," said Rep. Pat Williams, a Democrat from Montana who opposes NAFTA. "You have liberal Democrats siding with Richard Nixon. It's like Gandhi being for nuclear war."
But the experience created good will on both sides and a hope that it would extend to consideration of health care reform next year.
"I can't tell you how much I would love to come to the floor next year and vote for a bipartisan solution to health care reform," said Rep. William M. Thomas, a California Republican.
For Republicans, the NAFTA vote was easier than for most Democrats, because the GOP considers itself the party of free trade and because Mr. Bush negotiated the original deal.
Mr. Bush and former President Richard Nixon both made last-minute phone calls to wavering House members; Mr. Bush was also sending faxes this week from Hong Kong, where he is on a speaking tour.
The grass-roots campaign against NAFTA waged by Mr. Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote in last year's presidential election, was very troublesome to the GOP in September. But its impact steadily dissipated and faded almost entirely after Mr. Perot's testy performance in a debate with Vice President Al Gore last week.
But the House Republicans always had their eye on Mr. Clinton's fellow Democrats; they were determined that at least 100 of the 258 Democrats vote for the pact.
It took Mr. Clinton all day to round up the essential 100 Democrats, fighting not only labor and environmental lobbyists but a wave of optimism that suggested he might not need them.
Some of those who refused to commit themselves until the last day were merely holding out for the best deal they could get for their districts.
Florida Republican C. W. "Bill" Young said yesterday that he intended to vote for the trade agreement all along but waited until concessions were made for Florida's vegetable, citrus and sugar industries.
Others, though, claimed to be genuinely convinced after long and painful soul-searching.
"Economic times, they are a-changing," said Rep. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, paraphrasing Bob Dylan. "You better start swimming, or you'll sink like a stone."