A painfully divided House of Representatives approved the North American Free Trade Agreement by an unexpectedly large margin Wednesday night, ending a hard-fought battle that grew into a referendum on the fundamental changes sweeping the American economy.
The vote was 234 to 200, 16 more than the 218 needed for passage. The Senate is expected to act on the measure within days. Passage there is not in doubt.
In a brief appearance in the White House grand foyer less than an hour after the vote, a beaming President Clinton savored the come-from-behind victory and declared: "Tonight's vote is a defining moment. At a time when many of our people are hurting . . . we chose to compete and not to retreat."
The strongest support in the House came from Republicans, who cast 132 votes for the trade plan and 43 against it. Among Democrats, 102 voted for the agreement and 156 opposed it. The one independent in Congress voted against the plan.
"It is not a perfect agreement," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) in an address to his colleagues. "But this is, for the moment, an opportunity to expand our trade, to reach out beyond our borders . . . to seize the future."
"Is it good for America or not? I believe passionately it is good for America," he said.
Reflecting the division that the plan has generated, his two most senior deputies, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and House Majority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan, opposed the agreement.
"It will cost jobs. It will drive down our standard of living. It will lock in place a Mexican system that exploits its own people and denies them the most basic political and economic rights," Bonior said.
Expanding on a 5-year-old, U.S.-Canadian free-trade pact, the agreement would eliminate most tariffs, quotas and other barriers to unrestrained commerce among the United States, Mexico and Canada over a 15-year period, beginning Jan. 1, 1994.
The agreement would remove most tariffs now levied on Mexican goods entering the United States, such as the 15% surcharge slapped on electronic components manufactured south of the border. As a result, U.S. companies and their workers will be forced to compete with Mexican firms paying wages that in some cases are as little as one-tenth those paid here.
On the other side of the equation, most Mexican tariffs assessed on U.S. products would be eliminated. For example, U.S. chemical manufacturers, which now pay similar tariffs when they ship their goods to Mexico, say they expect sales to expand well beyond last year's $3 billion once the pact takes effect, giving them a competitive edge over overseas chemical concerns. U.S. firms that make other products now subject to Mexican tariffs anticipate similar benefits.
The Clinton Administration has argued that the net effect of such trade-offs, with tariffs disappearing on thousands of products, will help lift Mexico out of the economic rut in which it has been stuck for generations. The jobs created by an expanding Mexican economy, in turn, will fuel the growth of a booming consumer market anxious to purchase the products of U.S. factories, the Administration contends.
Despite the emotion that has enveloped the issue across the nation, much of the debate on Wednesday--save for the final arguments--contained little passion. The debate began at 9 a.m. and continued for approximately 13 hours.
All told, 245 representatives--an astoundingly high number--trooped to the well of the House to speak. But with the results not in doubt, they spoke not so much to influence their colleagues as to explain their votes to political supporters at home.
The House vote was widely regarded as a key test of Clinton's legislative acumen. A loss would have cast doubt on his ability to shepherd other Administration initiatives through Congress and weakened his hand in dealings with foreign leaders. The victory gives new momentum to his ambitious domestic agenda and pending trade talks with other nations.
Perhaps more important, the verdict is expected to send a strong signal of U.S. willingness to continue exercising leadership in world affairs. Some supporters argued that a rejection would have heralded a dangerous new era of isolation and protectionism.
"A vote against NAFTA is a vote for economic surrender," declared House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), one of the Administration's key allies in the congressional leadership.
If the emotion of the debate was dissipated, it was replaced by a palpable bitterness as dejected opponents angrily accused colleagues of selling their votes in exchange for promises of political support or pork-barrel rewards.
"The wounds are pretty deep, and it will take time and work to heal them" House Deputy Whip Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) said after the vote.
That sentiment was echoed by Thomas Donahue, the secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, which was at the forefront of the opposition and found itself in an angry war of words with the first Democratic President elected since 1976.
Donahue blamed the failure to defeat the agreement on "an orgy of deal-making" and said that the labor movement would find it "hard" to support the reelection campaigns next year of lawmakers "who voted against our interests."
Clinton sought in his remarks after the vote to mend fences with the Democratic leaders who fought so desperately over the issue. Leaders of the opposition were "passionate defenders of working people," he said, and "were right to speak out." But he added that in the end "we simply cannot advance the security of Americans by building walls. . . ."
In Mexico City, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari called House approval of the agreement "a rejection of protectionist tendencies."
"The agreement is for Mexico an additional instrument that can be added to the previous changes we have made because they are good for the nation," he said.
Salinas pledged that Mexico will not change its free-market economic policies and cautioned against unrealistic expectations from the trade agreement. "The most important effort remains the internal effort," he said, vowing that Mexico will continue to try to diversify its international trade ties.
In Seattle, where he is attending the 15-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, Canadian Trade Minister Roy McLaren told reporters: "I welcome the affirmation in the U.S. House of Representatives of an outward-looking attitude and rejection of protectionist tendencies."
McLaren also said he is optimistic about reaching agreement with the United States to meet concerns expressed by his nation's new prime minister, Jean Chretien. Chretien had said that, among other things, he wants a tougher mechanism for settling disputes.
"I am quite confident that we'll be able to reach agreement in the near future about how we might best proceed," McLaren said.
In Tokyo, Kyodo news agency reported that Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa welcomed passage of the trade agreement by the House. "If it had been rejected, there would have been fears the protectionist movement in the United States would strengthen," he said. "Our country welcomes it too."
As the vote neared in Washington, the debate had widened far beyond the narrow confines of trade policy to encompass the fears and uncertainties gripping the nation as it ponders its role in the shifting global economy.
"This is a debate between the future and clinging to the past," said House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who equated the movement into an era of free trade from the Yukon to Yucatan with the U.S. program to rebuild Europe after World War II.
The seemingly rote debate that prevailed throughout the afternoon was disrupted by brief demonstrations. At one point, four people showered fake $50 bills imprinted "trading pork for poison" from the visitors gallery. The participants were ejected by authorities.
Throughout the day, the gallery was nearly full. In the evening, a line of people stretched 100 yards across the third floor of the Capitol all the way to the Senate, as onlookers waited their turn to witness a potentially historic debate.
The issues raised in the yearlong battle have cut across party lines, pitting Democrats against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans.
State delegations have also found themselves divided, as representatives from districts that would clearly benefit from the agreement fought for passage and those from threatened communities bitterly challenged its approval.
On one level, the debate was about economics, particularly the crucial question of jobs: Would the trade pact mean a loss of jobs to Mexico--the "giant sucking sound" predicted by billionaire Ross Perot, a NAFTA opponent--or would the creation of new markets bring with it new jobs supplying consumers south of the border?
"Are you on the side of the Fortune 500 or are you on the side of the unfortunate 500,000 who will lose their jobs?" Bonior asked. "It's not fair to ask Americans to compete against Mexican workers who earn $1 an hour or less."
But on another level the debate was cast as a watershed event that would measure anew America's place in a changing global order: Would the world's largest single economy embrace a free-trade agreement, with all the risks and benefits such pacts have posed in the past, or would it retain tariffs intended to protect struggling industries and agriculture?
The debate addressed the environment: Would the agreement reward Mexico for years of lax enforcement of environmental regulations by encouraging increased cross-border trade?
It addressed human rights too, as members complained that a nation governed for nearly a century by one political party, with each president handpicking his successor, was not the sort of democracy to which the United States should bestow the benefits of untaxed commerce.
"If we pass this NAFTA, we'll be sending a message . . . that human rights can be bought and sold," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). "What does it profit a great nation, the United States of America, to gain a free-trade agreement with Mexico and lose its soul?"
The vote also became a test of Clinton's leadership.
Until the last month of the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton avoided declaring whether he would support the agreement, which was negotiated by the George Bush Administration.
Under pressure from Bush during the campaign to make up his mind, he said he would back the pact, but only if it included supplemental agreements protecting the environment, worker rights and threatened U.S. industries.
Such side agreements were completed by the new Administration in August.
To some critics, that approach sowed the seeds for the bitter fight that threatened Clinton with a devastating political loss. The President avoided the debate for months while the side agreements were being negotiated and opponents attacked the trade pact as supporters questioned the President's commitment.
Clinton and his aides argued after the additional issues were resolved that he had no choice because wholehearted endorsement of the plan before it was completed would have undercut the United States' negotiating position.
Putting an openly partisan cast on the result, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that even with the successful vote, Clinton would "suffer some loss because there has really been a rip, I mean a serious one, among some of his most loyal supporters."
While the debate in the House dealt with such lofty issues as human rights and such nitty-gritty ones as jobs and wages, fears of political loss underlined the lawmakers' concerns.
Representatives from Florida and Maine to Washington and California wondered, sometimes in public, more often in private conversations, whether support for the plan would make them vulnerable next November to the wrath of voters if job losses in their districts follow implementation of the trade plan.
"Judgment day is coming. It'll be here in a split second," said Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), referring to the next election. "They'll throw your butts out of here."
But the threat drew an angry retort--from a fellow Republican.
"You, sir, have fired a shotgun of fear at me, and I resent it," retorted Rep. Pat Roberts of Kansas.
It was the fears of job loss that fueled the angry opposition of the AFL-CIO and locked into the opposition a large bloc of votes from much of the Rust Belt, the Midwestern manufacturing zone that was devastated by the recession of the early 1980s.
But it was a concern that reached across the nation.
The agreement, said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), "essentially treats workers of this country . . . as an afterthought."
Some members expressed anger over the deals made by Clinton that, in their view, undercut the trade agreement by providing additional protection for some industries rather than making them compete freely.
Such agreements were drawn up to alleviate the concerns of peanut farmers and growers of sugar beets, of owners of orange groves and tomato farmers and those who till the vast Wheat Belt of the Midwest. There was protection for the textile industry and for makers of home appliances fearful of competing with lower-cost Mexican factories.
There was the promised establishment of a North American Development Bank to begin to pay for the cleanup of the U.S.-Mexican border and a pledge of progress on the thorny issue of returning to Mexico illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the United States.
Among the concessions made to secure additional votes--in this case, that of Rep. Clay E. Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.)--was a pledge by Mexico to extradite a Mexican man accused of abducting and raping a young girl in Southern California and then fleeing across the border.
The vote in support of the trade plan, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said in an interview, was "strictly because of the buyouts."
"It had absolutely nothing to do with the debate. It had absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the issue," she said. "People are talking about ambassadorships, judgeships, etc. It's not what Bill Clinton campaigned on. Last November he campaigned on change. This is business as usual. . . . He's a candidate of Wall Street not Main Street."
Times staff writers Karen Tumulty and William J. Eaton in Washington and Juanita Darling in Mexico City contributed to this story.
* RELATED COVERAGE: A16, A17, A18, A20, A21, D1, D3
How They Voted
Here is a list of ballots cast Wednesday when the House, by a 234 to 200 margin, approved the North American Free Trade Agreement.
GOP--Kolbe, Kyl, Stump
DEM--Coppersmith, English, Pastor
GOP--Baker, Calvert, Cox, Cunningham, Dornan, Dreier, Herger, Horn, Huffington, Kim, Lewis, McCandless, McKeon, Moorhead, Packard, Rohrabacher, Thomas
DEM--Becerra, Beilenson, Berman, Brown, Dooley, Eshoo, Farr, Fazio, Lehman, Matsui, Mineta, Pelosi, Roybal-Allard, Torres
GOP--Allard, Hefley, McInnis, Schaefer
GOP--Franks, Johnson, Shays
GOP--Fowler, Goss, Lewis, McCollum, Miller, Shaw, Young
DEM--Bacchus, Gibbons, Hastings, Hutto, Johnston, Meek
DEM--Darden, Deal, Johnson, Rowland
GOP--Crane, Ewing, Fawell, Hastert, Hyde, Manzullo, Michel, Porter
DEM--Durbin, Reynolds, Rostenkowski
GOP--Grandy, Leach, Lightfoot, Nussle
GOP--Baker, Livingston, McCrery
DEM--Kennedy, Markey, Meehan, Studds
GOP--Camp, Hoekstra, Knollenberg, Smith, Upton
DEM--Montgomery, Parker, Whitten
GOP--Franks, Gallo, Roukema, Zimmer
GOP--Boehlert, Fish, Houghton, King, Lazio, Levy, Molinari, Paxon
GOP--Ballenger, Coble, McMillan
DEM--Hefner, Neal, Price, Rose, Valentine
GOP--Boehner, Gillmor, Hobson, Kasich, Oxley, Portman, Pryce
DEM--Brewster, English, McCurdy, Synar
GOP--Clinger, Gekas, Goodling, Greenwood, McDade, Ridge, Walker
GOP--Duncan, Quillen, Sundquist
DEM--Clement, Cooper, Ford, Gordon, Lloyd, Tanner
GOP--Archer, Armey, Barton, Bonilla, Combest, DeLay, Fields, Sam Johnson, Smith
DEM--Andrews, Bryant, Chapman, Coleman, de la Garza, Edwards, Frost, Geren, E.B. Johnson, Laughlin, Ortiz, Pickle, Sarpalius, Stenholm, Tejeda
GOP--Bateman, Bliley, Goodlatte, Wolf
DEM--Moran, Payne, Pickett
DEM--Cantwell, Dicks, Foley, Inslee, Kreidler, McDermott, Swift
GOP--Gunderson, Klug, Petri, Roth, Sensenbrenner
DEM--Bevill, Browder, Cramer, Hilliard
GOP--Doolittle, Gallegly, Hunter, Pombo, Royce
DEM--Condit, Dellums, Dixon, Edwards, Filner, Hamburg, Harman, Lantos, Martinez, Miller, Schenk, Stark, Tucker, Waters, Waxman, Woolsey
DEM--DeLauro, Gejdenson, Kennelly
GOP--Bilirakis, Canady, Diaz-Balart, Mica, Ros-Lehtinen, Stearns
DEM--Brown, Deutsch, Peterson, Thurman
DEM--Bishop, Lewis, McKinney
DEM--Collins, Costello, Evans, Gutierrez, Lipinski, Poshard, Sangmeister, Rush, Yates
DEM--Jacobs, Long, McCloskey, Roemer, Sharp, Visclosky
DEM--Frank, Moakley, Neal, Olver
DEM--Barcia, Bonior, Carr, Collins, Conyers, Dingell, Ford, Kildee, Levin, Stupak
DEM--Minge, Oberstar, Peterson, Sabo, Vento
DEM--Clay, Danner, Gephardt, Volkmer, Wheat
DEM--Andrews, Hughes, Klein, Menendez, Pallone, Payne, Torricelli
GOP--Gilman, McHugh, Quinn, Solomon, Walsh
DEM--Ackerman, Engel, Hinchey, Hochbrueckner, LaFalce, Maloney, Manton, McNulty, Nadler, Owens, Rangel, Schumer, Serrano, Slaughter, Towns, Velazquez
DEM--Clayton, Lancaster, Watt
DEM--Applegate, Brown, Fingerhut, Hall, Kaptur, Stokes, Strickland, Traficant
GOP--Santorum, Shuster, Weldon
DEM--Blackwell, Borski, Coyne, Foglietta, Holden, Kanjorski, Klink, Margolies-Mezvinsky, McHale, Murphy, Murtha
GOP--Inglis, Ravenel, Spence
DEM--Brooks, Gonzalez, Green, Hall, Washington, Wilson
DEM--Boucher, Byrne, Scott, Sisisky
DEM--Mollohan, Rahall, Wise
DEM--Barca, Barrett, Kleczka, Obey
By the Numbers / The NAFTA partners:
United States: 250 million
Mexico: 88 million
Canada: 27 million
GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT
United States: $5,680 billion
Mexico: $280 billion
Canada: $590 billion
PER CAPITA GDP
United States: $22,700
Source: Congressional Budget Office