Amid die-hard resistance from within his own party, President Clinton asked Wednesday for broadened authority to make international trade deals, inflaming a dispute that has come to reflect the deepest fears of working Americans.
"This is about more than economics . . . " Clinton declared in a White House ceremony. "It's about whether other countries will continue to look to the United States to lead to a future of peace and freedom and prosperity. About whether the world will be growing together instead of coming apart."
Indeed, Clinton had to delay plans to unveil a detailed legislative proposal because of the divisive political debate. Under the authority Clinton seeks, known as "fast track," Congress would be able to say yes or no to trade deals but it could not alter them.
Critics, who argue that free trade can create downward pressure on the wages of working Americans, want future treaties to guarantee that U.S. trading partners meet labor and environmental standards. The White House, they maintain, has been too sanguine about the downside of the global economy and its effects on workers at the bottom of the income ladder.
In particular, they say, the North American Free Trade Agreement has hurt American workers by raising the specter that their employers may move to Mexico.
"As much as anything, the experience with NAFTA is energizing people" to resist the White House plan, said Thea Lee, assistant director for public policy at the AFL-CIO.
Clinton attempted to answer his opponents Wednesday, describing the push for broader trade authority as essential to future increases in America's standard of living through increased commerce overseas and pointing out that previous presidents enjoyed such power, which expired in 1993.
"We have to make sure that all Americans can reap the fruits of the economic growth we have enjoyed as a nation," Clinton said. "But we cannot do that by stepping off the path of economic growth."
Advocates of trade agreements say that export-based jobs, which are fostered by trade deals, typically pay above average and that such gains more than offset the disruptions faced by some workers, at least over time. Studies of NAFTA's effect on job displacement have yielded conflicting conclusions, although analysts widely agree that low-skill, low-wage workers are increasingly vulnerable to technological change at home and competition from abroad.
Clinton acknowledged that trade could have negative effects "on some communities or businesses or workers" in the short run but he maintained that the effects would be "overwhelmingly positive" for the vast majority. Changes in the economy "are going to occur anyway," making efforts to improve access to education all the more important, Clinton said.
Speaking directly to critics, he maintained that "our commitment to workers' rights and environmental protections are and long have been reflections of our fundamental values."
At the East Room ceremony, Clinton was joined by a high-tech executive from Orange County and a corn farmer from Iowa. Both described exports as crucial to their fortunes.
Susan Corrales-Diaz, chief executive of Systems Integrated in Orange County, said that her firm now does a quarter of its business internationally and that foreign sales have been critical to its success after cutbacks in the military.
"Simply said, if the U.S. doesn't set the rules for trade, they will be set for us," she declared in the East Room ceremony. After she finished, an impressed Clinton commented: "If all else fails, you can give speaking lessons."
In fact, the politics of trade have become increasingly roiled. The White House finds itself caught between the demands of key Republicans, who stoutly resist imposing tough labor and environmental requirements in trade negotiations, and many other members of both parties, who desire precisely that.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who is leading his party's opposition to the fast-track proposal, seized on Clinton's delay as a sign that the administration is prepared to accede to the Democrats' demands and hinted that he is willing to negotiate a compromise.
"The delay in sending up a detailed bill is hopefully a sign that a majority of Democrats and their concerns are being heard," he told a press conference. "Democrats want to forge a policy that unites, not divides us," he said.
Key Republicans, meanwhile, sought to step up pressure on the administration to send a detailed proposal to Congress quickly, hinting that there might not be enough time for both houses to pass the legislation if the president does not move quickly.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas) warned that "every day's delay complicates the prospects for passing fast-track legislation."
Administration officials want to push the bill through the House before the president's trip to Latin America in October. If the Senate does not complete action on the bill before Congress adjourns, the debate will spill over into 1998, which is a congressional election year. Republicans are warning that some GOP supporters of fast-track legislation may stray in the face of a campaign.
Times staff writers Donald W. Nauss in Detroit and Art Pine in Washington contributed to this story.