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Clinton Opens Drive for Free Trade Pact Votes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton launched his long-odds campaign for approval of a three-way trade agreement with Mexico and Canada on Tuesday, declaring that lowering barriers to commerce will reward all and “create the jobs of tomorrow.”

With three former Presidents--George Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald R. Ford--looking on, Clinton signed supplemental agreements intended to protect the environment, workers’ rights and industries that would be threatened by approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In a ceremony meant to borrow the flavor of reconciliation that infused the White House at the Middle East peace pact signing a day earlier, Clinton reached out to Republicans and recalcitrant Democrats, while decrying the “fear tactics” of the pact’s opponents.

He touted the agreement negotiated under Bush as one that will promote U.S. jobs by opening the Mexican market to the production of U.S. fields and factories.

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“NAFTA means jobs; American jobs, and good-paying American jobs,” Clinton said, with the former presidents at his side and an array of Cabinet members, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders and business supporters of the agreement seated in front of him in the East Room of the White House.

Over a 15-year period, the trade pact, which appears to face a difficult path to approval in Congress, would eliminate tariffs and such non-tariff obstacles to free trade as investment restrictions. It would create, Clinton said, “a free-trade zone stretching from the Arctic to the tropics, the largest in the world--a $6.5-billion market with 370 million people.”

If approved by the required simple majorities in the House and Senate, it would take effect Jan. 1.

Critics argue that it would encourage employers to move their operations to Mexico to take advantage of lower wage rates there and lax enforcement of environmental regulations. Former presidential candidate Ross Perot, a leading opponent of the pact, has said that the agreement would put 5.9 million U.S. jobs at risk. The Administration says it would produce 200,000 U.S. jobs in two years.

Carter, in some of the sharpest language directed at Perot by a political figure of national standing, said Tuesday: “Unfortunately in our country now, we have a demagogue who has unlimited financial resources and who is extremely careless with the truth, who is preying on the fears and the uncertainties of the American public.

“And this must be met, because this powerful voice can be pervasive, even within the Congress of the United States, unless it’s met by people of courage who vote and act and persuade in the best interest of our country,” Carter said.

His attack brought the applauding audience to its feet.

Perot has made defeat of the trade pact the focus of his high-profile political activities in recent months, co-authoring a book and broadcasting television commercials sharply criticizing the agreement. But the Administration, leery of offending his supporters who could be an important factor in the 1996 presidential election, has largely avoided criticizing him directly, while seeking to counter his argument in a low-key fashion.

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Bush, whose reelection campaign a year ago suffered at the hands of Perot as well as Clinton, also took an apparent swipe at the Texas billionaire.

“Many are taking the cheap and easy way out on this one, appealing to demagoguery and to interests that are very, very special,” he said.

Sharon Holman, a Perot spokeswoman, said that Perot would have no response. “We’re going to stay focused on the issues,” she said.

Perot is not the only well-known critic. Others include consumer activist Ralph Nader, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, and Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative columnist who challenged Bush last year for the Republican presidential nomination.

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The cast of opponents illustrates the peculiarity of the division that has accompanied the North American Free Trade Agreement: While it threatens to divide the body politic as deeply as any issue in recent years, the split takes no firm line, with Republicans and Democrats found on both sides, and ideological groundings playing no clear role.

To Clinton, the debate over the agreement revolves around more than the immediate issue of jobs and exports. Rather, it is a metaphor for the shifts taking place in the global economy in a time of head-spinning technological advances.

The debate, he said, is “about whether we will embrace these changes and create the jobs of tomorrow, or try to resist these changes, hoping we can preserve the economic structures of yesterday.”

His remarks brought praise from Bush: “Now I understand why he’s inside looking out and I’m outside looking in.”

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Clinton, who has been criticized by the trade pact’s supporters for devoting little public attention to it, pledged to his audience: “I expect to be there with all of you every step of the way.” The desire of the White House to draw attention to the agreement finally--and the difficult battle ahead--prompted the invitations to the former presidents and their rare appearance together.

The supplemental agreements were negotiated to overcome some of the concerns that Clinton raised during the campaign, when Bush pushed him to endorse the agreement. Clinton at first balked at endorsing the pact, then endorsed it on condition that the supplemental agreements on protecting the environment and workers’ rights would be negotiated.

One of the supplemental accords would permit the eventual application of trade sanctions against any country that fails to enforce its environmental laws; a second would pressure Mexico to adhere to its laws on worker health and safety, child labor and minimum wages, and a third is intended to protect communities, industries and workers who suffer from the competition provided by unanticipated surges in imports as a result of the trade pact.

In Mexico City Tuesday, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari also signed the side agreements while Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell put her signature to the accords in Ottawa.

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Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this story.


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