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With Vote Near, NAFTA Remains Too Close to Call

DAY by day, President Clinton is gaining votes in Congress for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - but will he get enough?

The NAFTA showdown in the House of Representatives comes on Wednesday, and White House strategist Bill Daley predicts flatly that the agreement will pass. But Mr. Daley's congressional allies, who admit they are still one or two dozen votes short, express less confidence.

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Beginning today, congressmen return from the long Veterans Day weekend in their home districts. Daley admits ``some concerns'' about criticism of NAFTA they may have heard from their constituents.

At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Daley observed that at the moment, ``neither side has the votes'' either to pass or defeat NAFTA, which would reduce tariffs to zero over the next 15 years between the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

But as more and more representatives endorsed NAFTA during the past few days - including Esteban Edward Torres (D) of California and Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois - Daley insists that the momentum is ``on our side.''

What clearly most worries Daley and other NAFTA supporters is the all-out effort by labor unions to block the agreement. The union opposition is tough, well-organized, and carefully targeted, he says.

The unions have a ``very aggressive game plan,'' says Daley, who is special counselor to the president for NAFTA. In recent days, he says unions have targeted specific congressmen in their home districts with radio and TV ads.

Particularly vulnerable, he says, are freshmen members who are unaccustomed to the pushing and shoving of voter groups before a big vote.

Obviously this is ``a very difficult vote for a freshman member who is very unsure of his district,'' Daley says.

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The White House contends that NAFTA foes were thrown off their stride during the past week when President Clinton directly attacked labor's lobbying effort, and when Vice President Al Gore Jr. took on NAFTA opponent Ross Perot in a nationally televised debate.

One problem holding back support for NAFTA is the absence of a retraining plan for up to 500,000 American workers who could be displaced by the free-trade pact.

Daley, who is the son of legendary Chicago mayor Richard Daley, says Mr. Clinton is ``very committed'' to helping such workers.

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