NAFTA Hard Sell Meets Resistance

Article excerpt

Byline: Carter Dougherty

The Bush administration is waging a concerted campaign to tout the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement, marking the first time in years that an administration has mounted a consistent defense of the often unpopular pact.

But the dispute over opening the U.S. border to Mexican trucks illustrates that the White House has not yet convinced Congress and the public that NAFTA is an unqualified success.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said yesterday that President Bush may have to wield his veto pen for the first time to kill legislation that would hinder access to U.S. highways for Mexican trucks - a key NAFTA requirement.

"I think that it may be his first veto," Mr. Card told NBC news.

The Bush administration's effort has bolstered the spirits of many NAFTA supporters, who believe the Clinton administration - after securing NAFTA's passage in 1993 - allowed its opponents to systematically chip away at the trade pact's reputation.

"Clearly, the Bush administration's heart is in the right place," said Philip Potter, president of the NAFTA Institute, a group founded in 1998 to tout the agreement's benefits.

The administration's defense of NAFTA will continue today when U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick will deliver a speech to the National Governors Association in Providence, R.I., praising the trade pact as being central to Mr. Bush's free trade agenda.

The administration faces a crucial vote this fall over the passage of legislation that would give it the authority to negotiate new trade agreements and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

Two uses of this "trade promotion authority" will be to negotiate a free-trade deal covering all of North and South America, and to begin a new round of talks with the World Trade Organization when it meets in November.

But the widespread negative public perception of NAFTA hangs like an albatross around the administration's neck, a point Mr. Zoellick acknowledges.

"The American people must know the truth about NAFTA and the benefits of trade if we are going to ask to extend free trade to all of the Americas, persuade Congress to give President Bush trade promotion authority and attempt to launch a new global round this November," Mr. Zoellick said.

Promoting the benefits of NAFTA is also good politics with Hispanic voters, whom Mr. …