WASHINGTON -- Dealt an embarrassing setback by his own party, President Clinton vowed yesterday to keep fighting to win "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade deals, and he predicted he would eventually prevail.
"This is not dead," Clinton insisted after he had asked House Speaker Newt Gingrich early yesterday morning to shelve the measure until next year because he lacked enough House votes for passage.
"What I would like to do is to bring it back up at a time when we can pass it with a big vote and a much stronger vote from both parties," Clinton said.
Both sides echoed Clinton's hope, though no one could explain how the gaps between Democrats and Republicans might be bridged in the pressurized atmosphere of an election year in 1998.
James Christy, head of the business coalition that pushed for fast-track, termed its withdrawal "a delay, not defeat."
Even House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, who led the opposition to this version of the bill on the grounds that it did not protect workers and the environment, said he wants the president to have some form of fast-track authority. "I will work with him to get it," the representative from Missouri added.
Regardless of whether Clinton can produce a compromise bill when Congress reconvenes next year, the demise of legislation granting him an authority possessed by every president since 1974 is a blow to his prestige and his power. And the rebuff comes at an unlikely time: a period of economic prosperity, when Clinton's popularity is at its peak.
So why, on an issue he deemed essential to continued prosperity, did Clinton attract only a paltry level of support from fellow Democrats in the House -- slightly more than 40 out of more than 200?
The answer lies in haphazard White House planning, in the power of organized labor inside the Democratic Party, and perhaps in Clinton's status as a lame-duck president. But the decisive factor may have been a backlash from organized labor and environmentalists over the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade pact muscled through Congress by Clinton four years ago this month.
"Labor really wanted to win on this badly," said Virginia Hume, an official with a pro-fast-track business group called America Leads on Trade. "They never really got over NAFTA."
Fast-track authority -- which allows a president to negotiate trade deals that Congress can either approve or reject but not amend -- was the rematch. And it brought the opposite result.
One apparent winner was Gephardt, a foe of NAFTA and fast-track and an oft-mentioned potential rival of Vice President Al Gore in the presidential race in 2000. But the principal architect of the victory was John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.
"The decision to pull down the fast-track legislation is the first bit of blue sky working Americans have seen in U.S. trade policy in many years," said Sweeney, whose organization directed huge contributions to selected Democratic congressional candidates in 1996.
Clinton interpreted NAFTA's passage as proof that the Democrats' pro-labor brand of trade protectionism was being replaced by his own centrist vision that free trade would ensure America's dominance in global markets.
But labor, environmentalists and many liberals reached the opposite conclusion. They began accumulating evidence that NAFTA had caused the United States to lose jobs to Mexico, with its lower wages and weaker environmental restrictions.
NAFTA had been amended to include side agreements intended to promote environmental cleanup along the Mexican border and adherence to minimum labor standards. But even proponents of fast-track authority concede that those measures have made little difference.
Citing that slow progress, the National Wildlife Federation, Audubon and the World Wildlife Fund -- all of which supported NAFTA -- opposed the fast-track legislation.
"The experience of NAFTA in the terms of the environmental and labor side agreements was the best argument for folks working against fast-track," said Chris McGinn, a trade official with the Ralph Nader-affiliated group Public Citizen. "It was easier to argue against this than it was with NAFTA, because now we have this growing mountain of evidence as to NAFTA's failure."
On NAFTA, Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, vowed that if Clinton could nail down 100 Democratic votes, the GOP would furnish the rest. Clinton launched a furious lobbying effort. Three ex-presidents, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, were pressed into service.
This time, too, Clinton made dozens of last-minute calls to promise fence-sitters goodies in their district. But many told him that the promises made when they voted for NAFTA had not been carried out.
This time, too, Clinton enlisted the former presidents. But this was done only last week at a photo session during the unveiling of the Bush library in Houston and appeared to be an afterthought.
When Clinton kicked off the fight for fast-track in September, even supporters were alarmed that the legislation had not yet VTC been written. The reason was that the president had yet to decide how far to go to meet opponents' concerns about labor and environmental standards.
Eventually, Clinton followed the Republicans' advice of offering a bill uncluttered by environmental and labor standards.
Clinton further alienated Democrats when he characterized a vote for fast-track as a "no-brainer." And in a dig at labor's financial support for members opposed to fast-track, Clinton said that if the vote could be done secretly, it would pass easily.
But though Gingrich told the president that Clinton needed to secure only 60 to 70 Democratic votes for passage, as the clock ticked into the late hours Sunday night the president had won over only 42 or 43 Democrats.
Clinton asked Gingrich to try to make up the difference with Republican votes. But when the speaker approached conservatives, some pegged their support to a ban on U.S. foreign aid for abortions. The president threw in the towel at 3 a.m. yesterday.
Afterward, Clinton blamed House conservatives. Business leaders blamed Clinton. And some House Democrats wondered why the White House sided with Republicans instead of with them.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, received five phone calls from the White House one day last week but said he never felt anyone was listening to his concerns on fast-track. Cardin was offered presidential visits to his district for fund-raisers or other events but not what he really desired: stronger environmental and labor standards.
"Why not talk to your own party?" Cardin asked.
House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who tried to help the White House, expressed some sympathy for Clinton: "The president ran into a buzz saw in the form of organized labor."
Pub Date: 11/11/97