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Job Training for NAFTA Victims Is Offered : Labor: White House plan is aimed at winning congressional support for trade agreement. Clinton’s broader proposal is put on the back burner.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Seeking to overcome one of the most widespread fears about the proposed free-trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, the White House would be willing to provide retraining assistance specifically for workers who might lose their jobs because of the pact, senior Administration officials said Friday.

The decision, which represents at least a temporary scaling back of the Administration’s broader worker-retraining goals, is designed to appease members of Congress who have said they will not support the North American Free Trade Agreement unless it is accompanied by specific provisions to offset job losses.

President Clinton has resisted proposals to create a program targeted directly at workers hurt by the trade agreement because he is preparing a larger measure that would make all displaced workers eligible for expanded federal job training.

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But officials said the Administration, locked in internal debate over how to pay for such a program, has concluded that it cannot get a comprehensive job training plan through Congress in time to help the embattled trade pact. No cost estimate for the proposal was given.

The more specialized training program could be made part of the trade pact, which is expected to be ready for a congressional vote later this fall.

“Over the long term (job training programs) have to be broadened. The question is when,” said one senior White House official. “You can’t move the broad package first, so you have to go with NAFTA alone. That is legislative reality.”

Stressing the need for quick action linked to the trade pact, an aide to the Democratic congressional leadership said: “Members and the public are smart enough to know if it isn’t in the bill, you don’t know it is going to happen.”

The shift in the retraining plan is part of the Administration’s mostly behind-the-scenes effort to persuade reluctant members of Congress to support the agreement, which would eliminate trade barriers among Mexico, Canada and the United States over the next 15 years. Vote counters on both sides of the debate agree that the White House faces an uphill battle.

Although there is considerable disagreement over whether the pact would send U.S. jobs to Mexico or create jobs in the United States to supply a growing export market, recent polls have found that opponents fiercely believe the agreement would mean job losses in this country.

The White House plan would serve two purposes: By creating a job-training program, it could ease those fears and provide political cover for members of Congress who support the agreement’s goals but are concerned about potentially damaging political fallout.

In a speech last week explaining his opposition to the pact, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said it is “vital” that the Administration address the issue of worker retraining.

Arguing for a broad-based program, he said: “We need a triggerless training system that doesn’t require workers to prove why they are dislocated but allows them simply to establish that they are dislocated.”

Meanwhile, Clinton, as part of what White House officials said will be both a public and private campaign, met with 13 members of Congress--some opposed to the agreement, some for it, and some on the fence.

Arguing that the more the public focuses on the pact, the more the dangers of inaction will become apparent, the President said: “I think the more people think about what happens if we don’t do it as compared with what happens if we do, the more the problems that people associate with the agreement will be seen to be associated with the status quo. . . .”

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who represents a Rust Belt constituency that fears job losses from the accord, said the President “pleaded with an earnestness I haven’t heard before that he is absolutely confident that this is going to bring on jobs.”

Conyers said that, “if we could retrain and employ anybody that’s legitimately displaced” as a result of the trade pact, and if the agreement could be presented as “a job-gainer,” he would drop his opposition and vote for it when it reaches the House.

A senior Administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said proposals for the overall job-training program, which has been the subject of drawn-out debate among Clinton’s closest advisers, would not be announced until later in the fall.


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