Leading Foe Of NAFTA Says It May Pass

DESPITE his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, says NAFTA could still pass.

In a Monitor breakfast yesterday, Representative Gephardt played down the impact of his announcement Tuesday that he would oppose NAFTA - even though, as a member of the House leadership, Gephardt would normally be a key lobbyist for the president's position.

``I truly believe that there's a tremendous exaggeration about what anybody brings to this in terms of influencing other votes,'' Gephardt said. ``Many of the members have been dealing with this issue for a long time. The new members dealt with it in the election. And many of the members a long time ago reached an opinion.''

He adds that 2 1/2 years ago, Congress voted by a modest majority to put negotiation of NAFTA on a ``fast track'' - further indication, presumably, that those members who are still in Congress have given the matter serious thought.

However, many could wind up where Gephardt did: voting for the fast track, but opposing the treaty as it has developed, with side agreements negotiated by the Clinton administration to bolster the Bush-era treaty.

If enacted, NAFTA would eliminate trade barriers among the United States, Mexico, and Canada over the next 10 years. Gephardt finds two major deficiencies with the plan.

First, he says, there is not a ``level playing field'' in the way wages and work conditions are set. Even though Mexico has laws on the books guaranteeing the right to strike and bargain collectively, in practice the government sets wages and prohibits real labor unions.

His second objection centers on the training of US workers who will lose their jobs, for whom there is not a major source of assistance. Gephardt wants a ``cross-border transaction fee'' because there's no money in the budget for this.

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