Clinton White House Lobbies All-Out As NAFTA Decision Nears in House

IN the two-week countdown to the congressional vote on whether to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the White House is pushing hard for its passage.

``We have entered the public domain in a big way,'' Robert Rubin, chairman of the White House's National Economic Council, said at a Monitor breakfast Nov. 2. With his crusade against the trade accord, ``[Texas businessman Ross] Perot got a march on us, and so did the opposition in Congress,'' Mr. Rubin said, adding that the labor and environment debate swirling around NAFTA ``lends itself to one-liners and simplistic criticisms.''

The administration's recent negotiation of labor and environmental side-agree- ments with Mexico and its own media blitz (including its use of Chrysler's Lee Iacocca to promote NAFTA) has won public support.

President Clinton's schedule over the next two weeks ``will be dominated by NAFTA,'' Rubin said. White House strategists are considering a ``circuit breaker,'' he said - a single major event to galvanize support.

Rubin's current read of the House of Representatives, where the NAFTA battle rages, is that ``there's a pretty good-sized bloc in favor, and a pretty good-sized bloc opposed, and a slightly smaller one that's undecided. That's where the trench warfare - the struggle - is going on.''

According to the president's top economic adviser, the stakes are high. If NAFTA fails, ``I don't think it would be unrealistic to expect [from Mexico] a recoiling against this country and a look elsewhere, say to Japan'' for a broad free trade agreement, he says. Latin America's economic and political reforms hinge on the passage of a regional accord, he adds.

What about the rumblings from Canada's new prime minister, Jean Chretien, that the United States, Canada, and Mexican trade representatives should return to the table for renegotiations? Rubin dismissed this possibility. ``We're going ahead full steam,'' he says. ``We can't renegotiate NAFTA.''

Rubin denies that the focus on NAFTA has kept US policymakers from adequately preparing for the upcoming Asian Pacific Economic Conference in Seattle to be hosted by Clinton later this month.

``I'm a globalist,'' says Rubin, who left his post as co-chairman of the international investment firm Goldman, Sachs to head the NEC. ``Asia will be the most dynamic part of the world in the next decade and we should position ourselves.'' Including Mexico - a ``Pacific nation'' - in the Asian conference is a move now under discussion, he says.

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