The White House and its allies on Capitol Hill are scrambling to prevent or soften attempts to overturn the president's recertification of Mexico as an ally in the drug war.
The outcome will impact US-Mexico relations and the health of the Mexican economy. It also has implications for cooperation in stopping the flood of illegal narcotics into the United States, immigration issues, and reaction in international financial markets.
President Clinton and recertification forces are fighting an uphill battle. An early test is scheduled for today, when the House of Representatives is to vote on a resolution disapproving Mr. Clinton's recertification of Mexico. Should the Senate approve a similar measure, which appears likely, the president could be forced to veto it. While the House probably has the votes to override such a veto, it's unclear whether it could be upheld in the Senate.
"We ought to understand, if we vote to decertify Mexico and override the president, there will be an anti-US backlash in Mexico, which will manifest itself in a whole lot of ways, including a decrease in cooperation ... as far as fighting the drug war is concerned," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who is leaning towards voting with the president.
It's a classic foreign-policy tussle between Congress and the administration, but as is often the case on international issues, one that cuts across party lines. Some of recertification's toughest critics are Democrats, including House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, co-sponsor of a disapproval resolution in the upper chamber along with GOP Sens. Paul Coverdell of Georgia and Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Senator Feinstein thundered against the State Department's justification of recertification in a floor speech earlier this week. "At best, this document - which purports to make the case for Mexico's certification - is a fairy tale. At worst, it is a complete whitewash," she declared.
Source of the pique with Mexico
Democrats and Republicans alike are upset the over recent indictment of the leader of Mexico's antidrug effort, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, for taking bribes from a Mexican drug cartel. They want to know what intelligence the US Drug Enforcement Agency shared with General Gutierrez that might have been passed along to narcotics criminals. Revelation of the names of US agents, for example, could put their lives at risk.
Opponents of recertification say that's just a fraction of the problem - that corruption is rampant in Mexico and the government there is not doing nearly enough in the antidrug effort.
Decertifying Mexico would theoretically mean imposing economic sanctions. But it's far from clear that even most opponents of recertification want to go that far. House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas worries about the effects on Mexico's fragile economy.
"My own desire is to find that magic language that demonstrates to the Mexican government how serious we are about the need for this kind of enforcement but does not result in ... actions by the international financial community that jeopardize the Mexican economy," he says. "That's a tricky business."
Supporters of the president's position, such as Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, say his leadership on the issue is crucial. Clinton met Monday night with a large group of senators to solicit their support.
He argues that Mexico has met recertification requirements because President Ernesto Zedillo has fired 1,200 public officials for corruption and has had record numbers of arrests and drug seizures. "I believe it's evidence that the government is cooperating," Clinton said. "What we need to do is find a way to work with the Congress to see what the next steps are going to be."
In the meantime, the administration and the congressional leadership are exploring various options. The resolution passed by the House International Relations Committee last week would decertify Mexico but allow the president to waive sanctions if he determines it is in the national interest.
Symbolism and substance
That would certainly not please the Mexican government, but might be enough to mollify congressional critics. Indications are the White House could accept such an outcome if it cannot muster enough votes in the Senate to override a veto.
"My goal has never been to impose sanctions. It's been to get results," Representative Gephardt says. "Decertification says we're serious. The waiver says we value the relationship and want to work together to solve what is a common problem."
Another proposal is simply to pass a "sense of Congress" resolution that would disapprove of the president's action but effectively let it stand. "The question is, is a sense-of-the-Congress resolution a resolution that has sufficient weight to ... get the message in there?" Mr. Armey asks. "Another question is, a motion of disapproval with a waiver might, by some people's reckoning, be too weak."
Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi says he expects the issue to reach the Senate floor next Tuesday or Wednesday.