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NAFTA Opponents Dig In Despite Lobbying Effort

President seems shy of votes needed to pass trade accord in Congress

SHAKESPEARE would savor the tempest surrounding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The bard, who wrote of ``strange bedfellows,'' could point first to the Democratic president and the Republican leadership, locked in an awkward alliance to pass NAFTA in the House of Representatives.

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President Clinton's major House foes? His own Democratic leader and his own Democratic whip, both from industrialized states that might lose jobs under NAFTA.

Meanwhile, scores of rank-and-file Republicans, rebelling against their own House leaders, have teamed up with their old nemesis, liberal labor unions, in an effort to defeat NAFTA. Serious trouble

Mr. Clinton's problems within his own party - less than half currently support NAFTA in the House - signal serious trouble.

Some foes now predict flatly that NAFTA will lose. Others suggest the planned November vote in Congress could be delayed past Jan. 1, 1994, the start-up date for the agreement.

Delay could be fatal. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari warned late last week that postponing the vote past Jan. 1 would kill the deal.

Outmaneuvered during the summer, pro-NAFTA forces are rallying. But their frustrations are mounting. Republican supporters complain that Clinton, distracted by Somalia, Bosnia, and his health care plan, has failed to put enough pressure on his fellow Democrats.

Rep. Newt Gingrich, the Republican whip, cautions that the president cannot expect the GOP to save NAFTA singlehandedly. With 218 votes needed for passage, the Democrats must supply at least 105 to 110 votes, he says, not just 70 or 80.

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Democratic Whip David Bonior, who has led the fight against NAFTA, estimates the president has only 132 votes so far in the House. He says 225 members are disposed to vote against it, with the balance undecided.

Supporters claim about 170 votes, including leaners, but that's still far short.

As the debate grows, a number of House members have visited Mexico to see the economy there firsthand. Many, such as Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, return unconvinced of the treaty's merit.

During the weekend, nine more congressmen, led by Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, headed for Mexico City. Mr. Conyers said prior to the trip that he was worried about the movement of US plants to Mexico under NAFTA.

He expressed concern that lax environmental enforcement in Mexico will encourage the transfer of US manufacturing plants there. Immigration concerns

Conyers observes that NAFTA is supposed to reduce illegal immigration from Mexico in the long run. But what about the short term?

Conyers asks: ``Will NAFTA accelerate the destruction of small Mexican farms [because of greater imports of American grain], thereby increasing the flow of illegal Mexican workers to the US?''

Advocates of NAFTA are trying to assuage such concerns with published reports, press conferences, and expressions of support from hundreds of economists.

The most recent study, ``The NAFTA and the National Interest,'' comes from the Progressive Policy Institute. It was written by Paula Stern, former chairwoman of the International Trade Commission.

Ms. Stern concedes that during the past 15 years, ``the prospects for those with fewer skills or less education [in the US] have become bleak'' and that ``personal income growth for middle- and lower-income Americans has stagnated.''

NAFTA alone won't solve that, she explains. But NAFTA, as part of an overall American economic strategy, will eventually restore ``US growth and competitiveness in global markets.''

Stern concedes this will come about only if the US simultaneously improves education and training, rebuilds its infrastructure, reduces the federal budget deficit, and eliminates subsidies for special interests. All together that's a tall order, but she insists it can be done.

Clinton struck the same theme while speaking to a meeting of the Democratic National Committee. Until American workers feel secure about their own jobs, health care, and other needs, ``I'm not sure the American people will ever be able to recover the personal optimism and courage to open up to the rest of the world,'' he said.

And Rufus Yerxa, a senior White House trade official, told a House hearing recently that NAFTA will improve Americans' personal economic security.

Declining US-Mexico tariffs already are helping, he said. In 1987, with high tariffs, the US was running a $5.7 billion trade deficit with Mexico. Now, with lower tariffs, the US runs a $5.4 billion surplus, Ambassador Yerxa said, and has added 400,000 new jobs.

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