Gephardt Stands Firm on Trade Agreement Although Opposed, He Won't Lobby against Accord

Article excerpt

When It comes to opposing the free trade pact with Canada and Mexico, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., feels so "very strongly" that he's willing to split the Democratic leadership, rebel against his party's president and risk questions about whether he should resign from the No. 2 spot in the House.

But on Monday, he indicated that he was reluctant to aggressively lobby wavering Democrats to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"All I have is one vote, and that's about it," Gephardt said in an interview. "Everybody's mind is pretty well made up. I don't think lobbying is going to make a difference."

Asked if he would talk to members to persuade them to vote against the proposal, Gephardt said: "I don't think so."

The trade agreement is hanging by a thread in the House, where President Bill Clinton will have to depend on Republicans to pass it. Gephardt holds the scissors.

He is arguably the Democrats' most powerful figure on trade issues. He helped to make trade a national political issue by using it as a cornerstone of his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. His job as House majority leader gives him the responsibility and the authority to rally Democrats to Clinton's and the party's programs.

But when the administration recently announced side agreements with Canada and Mexico on environmental and labor practices, Gephardt - who had pushed for the extra agreements - served notice that he will not carry the flag for the trade pact.

"I could not support the agreement as it now stands," Gephardt said Monday, repeating his criticism of the side agreements as "insufficient."

Gephardt voted in favor of so-called "fast track" negotiating authority to let the administration of President George Bush open talks with Mexico for the trade agreement. But for three years now, he has been the voice of an American coalition of farmers, organized labor and environmentalists that fears that the trade agreement will cost jobs and add to pollution.

He campaigned long and loudly for requirements in the pact for Mexico to tighten its environmental regulations, for it to change its labor laws granting workers rights to collectively bargain and to strike, for both nations to fund environmental cleanup on the border, and for the United States to pay to retrain American workers who lose their jobs to Mexico's cheaper labor force.

"I feel very strongly about this," Gephardt said. "I don't take this lightly."

Recapping his campaign, Gephardt said that he had written "six long letters" to Bush and five to Clinton, had "three- and five-hour meetings" with U.S. trade negotiators and face-to-face conversations with Clinton, made seven trips to Mexico to inspect working and environmental conditions and met twice with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

"I set out in a long series of letters and speeches exactly what I thought the negotiations had to produce," Gephardt said. …