Clinton pressing to pick up needed NAFTA votes



WASHINGTON (AP)—Struggling for votes with time running out, President Clinton leaned on Democrats opposing a trade agreement with Mexico Monday and tried to hold Republican supporters. The White House attempted to pick up farm-state votes with a wheat deal.

Two days before the showdown, the outcome rested with 40 House members who said they were still undecided—20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. Both sides contended they would have the votes to win.

Clinton argued there was nothing to lose by giving the agreement a chance. ‘‘If all the nay sayers turn out to be (correct), the treaty gives us a right to withdraw in six months,’‘ he said.

‘‘Why don’t we just wait and see whether we’re right or they’re right?’‘ Clinton said in a speech to owners of small businesses. ‘‘Ring the phones up,’‘ he implored, seeking to increase pressure on fence-sitting lawmakers.

The White House claimed to have picked up 15 votes over the weekend.

An Associated Press count found 205 lawmakers saying they would vote against the agreement or were likely to do so. On the other side, 189 lawmakers said they would vote for it; 40 said they were undecided. Clinton needs 218 votes to win. Vote announcements Monday were heavily in Clinton’s favor.

The party breakdown: 109 Republians and 80 Democrats are for it. Of those opposed, 158 are Democrats, 46 are Republicans and one is an independent.

Congressional sources said the administration struck a deal with several congressmen from Oklahoma and Texas to take action against Canadian wheat imports in exchange for their votes.

The administration agreed to impose quotas on durum wheat if Canada does not change its pricing policies within 60 days, the sources said. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, cited that agreement in announcing his support for Clinton Monday.

‘‘They’ve done a deal with everybody but working people,’‘ charged House Whip David Bonior, D-Mich., a leader of the anti-NAFTA forces. But he added, ‘‘I think we’re going to win.’‘

On the Capitol’s West Front, several hundred civil service union members, mostly from New York state, rallied against the trade pact.

‘‘Dump this NAFTA,’‘ the crowd chanted.

Many carried placards depicting an oversized monkey labeled ‘‘NAFTA’‘ perched on the shoulders of a frowning, hardhat-wearing worker.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland lashed out at Clinton for his extraordinary promise to defend Republicans who are attacked in congressional races because they voted for the trade agreement.

‘‘The president has clearly abdicated his role as leader of the Democratic Party,’‘ Kirkland declared. The administration worked with Republican leaders on the wording of a letter spelling out Clinton’s pledge.

The labor leader also dismissed the notion that a loss would wound Clinton’s presidency—a frequent argument by NAFTA supporters in recent days.

‘‘That is nonsense,’‘ Kirkland said. ‘‘I think the best thing that could happen for the Clinton administration is for this agreement to be voted down.’‘ He said that would allow Clinton to focus on issues ‘‘to put people first for a change.’‘

Undecided lawmakers who dined with Clinton Sunday night told him there had been ‘‘a sea change out in their districts’‘ and that public opinion is moving toward support of the agreement, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said.

‘‘As (U.S. Trade Representative) Mickey Kantor said yesterday, we expect ‘a Clinton landslide’—it’s going to be 218 votes, maybe 219, but that’s all we need to win,‘’ Myers said.

Outside the Capitol, NAFTA foe Ross Perot kept up the pressure. He called for a federal investigation of ‘‘billions of dollars’‘ in projects that he said Clinton had offered lawmakers Sunday for their votes.

Perot declined to provide examples. Instead he listed several deals that the administration had already reportedly agreed upon, including funds for a development bank and military transport planes and a temporary White House backtracking in its effort to raise grazing fees for many ranchers.

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, emerged from a 20-minute Oval Office session saying, ‘‘It’s almost like coming to the principal’s office.’‘

Contrary to reports, Green said he had not demanded approval for a bridge in his district in exchange for his vote. ‘‘I can’t tell anyone in East Houston they lost a job but I got a bridge,’‘ he said, insisting that Clinton did not attempt any horse trading.

‘‘I think it will be a narrow victory for NAFTA,’‘ said House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash. ‘‘It’s based on evidence of things moving in that direction. … We are not there yet, but we’re moving in that direction, very clearly.’‘

The trade agreement would phase out tariffs and other barriers over 15 years. Supporters say it will create a huge market for American exports, resulting in new jobs. Opponents say American workers will lose their paychecks as their companies close up and rush to Mexico for cheaper labor and less stringent environmental rules.

Clinton scheduled eight 30-minute one-on-one meetings with legislators, mostly Democrats now listed as ‘‘no’‘ votes.

The president also was working the telephones, largely to secure Republican votes. One official said the White House was counting on 120 from the GOP.