Clinton Faces Political Battle On Two Fronts

NAFTA and health-care reform will produce new friends and foes

THE crisp, clear politics of Republicans against Democrats that Washington grew accustomed to this summer is already fracturing along new lines.

President Clinton's nemesis for the past six months, Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, has vowed to "stand out front with the president" on a free-trade agreement with Mexico.

Meanwhile, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Richard Gephardt, has broken with the administration over the issue.

This fall, Mr. Clinton plans to juggle two heavy balls at once on which the votes are likely to divide very differently: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and his makeover of the health-care system.

Some Democrats are groaning over a congested agenda where each of these political tasks can only detract from the other. "As a lifelong Democrat, it sort of makes you want to weep," says strategist Ted Van Dyk.

Some Clinton allies argue that the politics of NAFTA and health care will reinforce each other. "You develop some good chemistry and working relationships with Republicans on NAFTA and it can bleed over into other issues like health care," says Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, chief deputy whip and a NAFTA supporter.

Still others, such as the chief lobbyist in the Bush White House, Fred McClure, see the issues running on separate, unrelated tracks. "Just because we were able to get comity and bipartisanship on clean air didn't guarantee it on civil rights," he recalls.

One sure thing is that the way the support divides on NAFTA and health care will be very different. Both will have to be bipartisan to be successful because of splits among Democrats.

Senator Dole predicts that majorities will be higher for NAFTA on the Republican side of the Senate and House aisles than on the Democrat side. He predicts that as many as 35 of 44 Senate Republicans will support Clinton's position.

Two large Democratic constituencies, labor and environmentalists, are largely opposed to the trade pact based on concern that Mexican competition will undercut American wages, working conditions, and environmental standards.

Free traders, more dominant among Republicans and their investor constituency, argue that both countries will grow faster under an open trade regime.

Clinton already claims the support of 42 governors for NAFTA, but they are only significant bystanders in this debate. The votes Clinton needs are in the Senate and - since NAFTA is an agreement and not a treaty - the House. The agreement is scheduled to take effect as of 1994, so the deadline for passage is tight.

"If we put off NAFTA, it's dead," Mr. Richardson says.

Clinton's appointment yesterday of Chicago lawyer William Daley, the younger brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, to organize the NAFTA campaign is calculated to help reassure labor constituencies and demonstrate White House seriousness about winning approval of the pact.

The politics of health care are far more complicated. The alliances have not formed, since some of the most controversial details of the plan are not yet clear. The sides are likely to never be as clean and simple as on NAFTA.

But Clinton's support on health care is also likely to cut along somewhat more partisan lines than on NAFTA. Mr. Dole, for example, has encouraged Republicans to remain open to Clinton's proposals and to seek a "middle ground" - a position far less committal than his support on NAFTA, but a long way from his staunch opposition on the budget.

Vice President Al Gore Jr. told a Monitor breakfast earlier this month that the White House expected both NAFTA and a health-care plan to pass by the end of this year, even if it meant extending the congressional session into the Christmas break. Few other Democrats see that as possible.

Richardson says that although the NAFTA and health-care campaigns are starting at the same time, they will move on very different calendars. Clinton will be fortunate if he can bring health care to a vote before the 1994 elections, Richardson says.

He argues that the two issues will not come into conflict since the actual voting will be separated by months.

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