Clinton battles threats to GATT as summit opens


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- As Pacific Rim leaders opened an economic summit last night focused on expanding free trade, President Clinton found himself forced to battle growing threats back home to an important worldwide trade agreement the White House once thought it had in hand.

Administration officials are concerned that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, a 123-nation accord to lower trade barriers, could become a victim of Democratic election losses and Republican presidential politics when Congress considers ratifying the accord in a lame-duck session in two weeks.

A defeat could have repercussions for the financial markets and for Mr. Clinton's political standing, calling into question his ability to win legislative victories in a capital where resurgent Republicans will soon take control of Congress.

Before the 18-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit opened its first business session this morning, Mr. Clinton sought to reassure foreign leaders in a series of separate meetings yesterday that his ability to conduct U.S. foreign policy hadn't been impaired by last week's election returns.

Mr. Clinton, Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and South Korean President Kim Young Sam issued a joint statement last night endorsing the accord with North Korea to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear program, which is suspected of building atomic weapons.

The summit seemed ready to approve an accord today that would commit the organization to building "open and free trade" throughout the region by the year 2020.

But at a news conference yesterday, Mr. Clinton once again had to address questions about his working relationship with Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House speaker-in-waiting, and incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, saying his "strategy will be to have an open door and to have a lot of contact."

Mr. Clinton continued to lobby for GATT, which is scheduled for a vote Nov. 29 in the House and Dec. 1 in the Senate.

"In each of the meetings today, there was strong agreement that early ratification of GATT would be essential to maintaining the climate that promotes global economic growth and expanding trade," Mr. Clinton said. "It was clear the rest of the world is looking to the United States for leadership on the issue."

Senior White House officials said the administration believes it has the votes in the House to win approval of GATT, but they are worried that they are far short of the necessary votes in the Senate.

Mr. Dole seems to be backing away from the accord, they said, and one of his likely rivals for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, already is considered a sure "no" vote.

"Dole is the real question mark," a senior White House official said, expressing concern that the Republicans might try to put off a vote until the new Congress takes over in January. Special "fast-track" rules that prevent amendments and procedural delays will have expired by then.

"If you don't get this done this year, you are putting in danger the agreement itself," the official said. "And you are putting in danger the ability of this president or future presidents . . . to negotiate trade agreements with other countries."

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton denied suggestions that he had backed away from human rights concerns in pressing for more trade with Asia, saying he had raised the issue in his face-to-face meeting Monday with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

A Chinese spokesman said Mr. Jiang told Mr. Clinton that China "wants to develop trust, reduce trouble, develop cooperation and avoid confrontation with the United States." But spokesman Chen Jian said political stability was more important for China than human rights.

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