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Clinton Puts Free Trade First This Fall

President faces a divided party as he seeks authority to strike deals abroad.

It's a good thing he just had a three-week vacation.

When President Clinton launches a new campaign on free trade tomorrow at the White House, he will be wading into one of the more complicated and politically charged debates in America today - how best to create and protect American jobs, on the assembly line and in the cubicle.

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In the ornate East Room, Mr. Clinton will try to expand his presidential powers by asking Congress to give him broad "fast-track" authority to strike deals abroad. With good trade terms, Clinton argues, the US will be able to boost exports and grow the economy.

Clinton's ambitious effort is just one part of a tough fall agenda that includes passing judgment on the pending tobacco settlement, rescuing his troubled education-standards effort, and trying to limit "greenhouse gasses."

The free-trade issue in particular will help define the future direction of the Democratic Party. It pits Clinton and other free-trade moderates against two of the party's key constituencies - labor unions and environmentalists. Presidential politics also swirl around the issue, with Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, who is eyeing a run for the Oval Office in 2000, leading the anti-free-trade charge.

Mr. Gephardt and other critics have a fundamentally different vision of the world economy and America's place in it. They believe free-trade deals encourage US firms, especially manufacturers, to bolt across the border or overseas, leaving more Americans out of work.

As the free-trade campaign begins, "You'll see an appeal to the American people to take notice of the fact that the ability of America to export products is an essential feature of our prosperity," says Jason Berman, Clinton's so-called fast-track czar.

Tug of war on trade

For 20 years, presidents could freely negotiate trade deals with other countries. When they brought the agreements home, Congress had to take a yes-or-no vote within 90 days - and it couldn't add or delete a word. But the law granting that power expired in 1994. Clinton wants it back - at least by April, in time for a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders.

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Tediously detailed, trade deals contain hundreds of pages of picayune stipulations and compromises. The White House argues that other nations will be reluctant to strike deals if Congress can rewrite them later.

But many in Congress balk at giving the president such broad powers. Clinton explains he would use the authority to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement to other countries in Latin America, including Chile.

Fast-track power is needed, he says, to keep the US competitive at global talks on agriculture, information technologies, and financial services - sectors the US dominates. Already America's competitors, including Japan and the European Union, have struck deals in Latin America and Asia, enabling their companies to beat out US firms in opening those markets. It's crucial to secure deals in these regions, Clinton argues, because they are expected to grow three times faster than the US in the next century.

While a new coalition of businesses is beginning to raise millions of dollars to boost the renewal effort, the opposition is already well-established.

Staunch opposition

The economic benefits of free-trade are negligible, critics argue. NAFTA - America's free-trade deal with Canada and Mexico - was supposed to boost American jobs as well as "help the environment along the border, and ... improve the Mexican economy," says Chris McGinn of the Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen, a lobby group. "All of those [goals] have fallen short."

Some free-traders acknowledge the growing global economy is displacing some US workers, but they believe America's long-term ability to grow is closely linked to its ability to trade.

In fact, the record on NAFTA is mixed. The White House says the trade pact has created 122,000 new jobs. Detractors say it has ballooned the trade deficit with Mexico to $17 billion.

Another of the critics' major worries is about an un-level playing field. They argue that by moving outside the US, companies avoid having to pay high wages and don't have to deal with tough US environmental laws. Then both workers and the environment in other nations risk being exploited, while Americans have lost their jobs.

So, some Democrats want to require the president to guarantee environmental protection and labor standards in the deals he strikes, and thus create a more-equitable trade environment.

But for some in Congress and some lobby groups, such guarantees aren't enough. They want Congress to act as a check against the president's power by keeping its ability to veto or rewrite sections of trade deals.

In its quest for fast-track power, the White House counts up to 100 undecided legislators. Convincing them is a matter of long-term significance, supporters say.

"It is essential to promote foreign-policy interests," says Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. "It's essential for our global leadership."

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