WASHINGTON — LIKE a coy Southern belle, Florida has been courted for weeks with costly gifts and lavish promises by the Clinton White House. Today, the president finally finds out if Florida says ``Yes.''
At stake: the Sunshine State's valuable 23 votes for the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
No state was a tougher sell. No state had more ``undecided'' congressmen. Florida lawmakers also insist that no state had more to lose if NAFTA turned out to be a sour deal for the United States.
With its subtropical climate, Florida relies on warm-weather crops like oranges, avocados, sugar, and winter vegetables to earn billions of dollars. Mexico, which shares Florida's sunny winter weather, poses a direct threat to the state's lucrative farm economy if trade barriers are lowered.
A number of Florida congressmen demanded protection against Mexico's low-wage, unregulated agriculture - or else.
It looks as if they got it, though some Florida representatives, such as Republican Porter Goss of Sanibel, complain that the White House waited ``until the 24th hour to do this.'' It was all ``a little nerve-wracking,'' he says.
Representative Goss, like other Florida members, shepherded the state's agricultural interests around Washington in recent days as they cut deal after deal with administration officials:
* Citrus growers, after negotiations that lasted one day until 4 a.m., won a long-term promise from the White House for hefty protection. The administration agreed to defend most of the citrus industry's 35 percent import tariff in future world trade talks. The tariff guards Florida profits against low-cost Brazilian orange juice concentrate.
* Vegetable farmers, who provide much of the nation's winter produce, got a $16 million pledge to complete an agricultural research station in Fort Pierce. A deal was also reportedly cut to allow the continued use of a controversial fumigant, methyl bromide.
* Sugar cane growers, who till thousands of acres near Lake Okeechobee, won protection against a potential surge of Mexican imports, which they claim would devastate the industry in Florida and Louisiana.
Goss says negotiations between the White House and big agricultural interests moved ahead ``vegetable by vegetable, from cucumbers to broccoli to bell peppers to celery.''
Even with all of this personalized attention from the White House, the battle for NAFTA isn't entirely won - although a Clinton aide claims the president now has enough pledges from uncommitted legislators, if necessary.
Rep. Jim Bacchus (D) of Merritt Island says he is satisfied the agreement will now be a ``big plus'' for his district. Mr. Bacchus represents the area around NASA's Kennedy Space Center, as well as the famous Indian River citrus-growing region.
Rep. Pete Peterson (D) of Marianna, however, says his NAFTA vote is still ``no.'' Representative Peterson hasn't asked for any White House favors. His complaint is with the way this agreement is being sold to the American people.
He says: ``This has been one of the most dishonest debates on any issue I have ever seen in my life. Everything is exaggerated on both sides. There is too much misinformation.... There is so much speculation, so many claims and counterclaims, it is difficult to find independent data to support anything.''
Floridians say the president pulled out all the stops.
``It's not arm-breaking, but it's very thorough,'' says Rep. Harry Johnston (D) of West Palm Beach. He favors NAFTA, but before announcing his position, he got a call urging support from a White House contact he had met only once 10 years before.
Rep. Earl Hutto (D) of Pensacola got an ``all-out press'' by the White House. Mr. Hutto was invited last week to Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s home for dinner (he declined) and this week to dinner and a game of golf with the president (he turned that down, too).
N Melbourne, Bacchus's decision to support NAFTA illustrates the dilemma of members. Recently he held a jobs fair, and 8,000 people showed up. Most were skilled workers laid off from high-tech industries. The biggest employer in Bacchus's district is Harris Corporation, which makes radar and avionics equipment, computer parts, and telecommunications gear. Their fastest growing market is Mexico. NAFTA gives Harris a leg up on Japanese competitors by helping the firm avoid Mexico's tariffs.
``If NAFTA fails, Harris has an incentive to move those jobs to Mexico,'' Bacchus says.
Yet Bacchus knows minimum-wage workers in citrus packing houses could be laid off as Mexican shipments of oranges increase under NAFTA. That worries him, but he says:
``We cannot cling to the past. We can't save both the high-wage and the low-wage jobs. If we have to choose, then we have to choose the high-wage jobs and prepare more of our people to hold those jobs. Otherwise, their standard of living will continue to decline.''
That's not the kind of message congressmen from Florida - or anywhere - like to deliver.