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Lawmakers Unite Against Mexico

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a rare display of bipartisan opposition to President Clinton, congressional lawmakers are circulating a letter urging him not to certify Mexico as an ally in the war on drugs.

Although congressional leaders said they have not yet counted votes, Democrats and Republicans alike said they expect the number of members signing the letter will be high enough to demonstrate to Clinton that a decision to certify Mexico could be overturned by Congress.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 01, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 1, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Drug war certification--A story published in Friday’s Times contained a quote that was incorrectly attributed to Susan Kennedy, an aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The quote said that congressional leaders would try to overturn certification of Mexico as a drug-fighting ally only if assured that a presidential veto could be overridden. Kennedy was not the source of the quotation. The source had asked to remain anonymous.

While the letter says Mexico should not be certified, it suggests that Clinton waive the punishment prescribed in the 1986 law--a 50% cut in U.S. aid and a vote against loans from international lending organizations.

The strong congressional reaction increases the pressure on Clinton and the State Department, which would feel the brunt of diplomatic fallout from Mexico if that country were put in the same category as Lebanon, Paraguay and Pakistan--the three countries now not certified but granted punishment waivers.

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Clinton would be embarrassed by a vote--led by members from within his own party--to overturn a foreign policy decision. If the president certifies Mexico as a drug-fighting ally, Congress could introduce legislation to overturn the action. If the legislation passed, it could be vetoed by Clinton. Congress can override a veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses.

White House foreign policy advisors said Thursday that they understand why passions had been aroused by the issue on Capitol Hill. But signals from the administration suggested that at least some top aides favor certification for Mexico.

Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, told a House committee Thursday that the United States believes that top Mexican officials are honest, most notably President Ernesto Zedillo.

“What we’re going to do in Mexico is to support this president and his senior officers,” McCaffrey said. “I don’t think we ought to overreact.”

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A White House official said Clinton believes that “Zedillo has been very sincere and determined and committed on this--that is something we take at face value. You can’t walk away from the good people in Mexico who are trying to fight this. And that is most of the people.”

The most worrisome opposition for the administration comes from Democrats, who in the past have been more inclined than Republicans to support Clinton’s certification decisions.

“There’s no point in starting the process [of opposition to certification] if we’re not serious” about getting a veto-proof margin, said Susan Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is spearheading Senate opposition.

“We are not in the head-counting stage yet,” Kennedy said. “We are still hoping the president will do the right thing and not certify Mexico.”

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By midday Thursday, about 24 senators had signed the letter.

Republican Sen. Paul Coverdale of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, is working with Feinstein to collect GOP support.

“He’s had conversations with Sen. Feinstein and has signed the letter,” " a staff member said.

In the House, opposition is being led by Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

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Laura Nichols, a spokeswoman for Gephardt, said the House campaign for now is focusing on getting Democrats to sign the letter. “We expect we’ll have significant support on the Republican side, so we don’t have Republicans on our letter today,” she said.

Much of the opposition in both houses stems from the arrest last week of Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the former Mexican drug enforcement official who is now accused of cooperating with his nation’s largest drug cartel.

Adding to the opposition from some members is continuing concern about the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

Nichols said a decision to withhold the certification for Mexico on its drug-fighting effort holds “some overlap” with Gephardt’s opposition to NAFTA, which some lawmakers argue benefits Mexico at the expense of U.S. workers.

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For the administration, the certification decision is diplomatically sensitive because Mexican officials have warned of potentially dire effects on relations between the two nations. An adverse decision would also threaten Clinton’s scheduled April visit to Mexico.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said the State Department had not yet issued its formal recommendation on certification and suggested that the president’s decision could be announced as early as today, but might not be made until Saturday or even Monday.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this report.


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