Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Clinton a `Junkyard Dog' on NAFTA `He Made Lyndon Johnson Sit Up in His Grave and Take Notice'

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Clinton a `Junkyard Dog' on NAFTA `He Made Lyndon Johnson Sit Up in His Grave and Take Notice'

Article excerpt

As President Bill Clinton scribbled on his NAFTA call list, an arrow pointing left meant a "yes" vote, an arrow to the right a rejection.

For weeks, arrows pointing left were hard to come by.

But by Monday, 60 hours before the House voted on the North American Free Trade Agreement, things were finally looking a little better for the White House. Clinton's list showed 190 solid and 13 likely NAFTA supporters. He was still more than a dozen votes short of victory but, finally, within striking distance.

What followed was a wild day of cajoling, dealing and arm-twisting - not just for Clinton but for most of the Cabinet, allies on Capitol Hill and aides in the White House NAFTA "war room."

At midday Tuesday, Clinton scrawled a pledge from Rep. George "Buddy" Darden, D-Ga., onto his notes, and it was over: The president would win a battle many thought he would run from, and even many of his closest advisers long thought he would lose.

Clinton's triumph is a twisted tale of odd alliances, bare-knuckle politics and old-fashioned pork-barreling. Allies say the main ingredient was simply Clinton's refusal to lose. But he did not win alone. In all, his Cabinet made more than 1,000 telephone calls to House members, and Republicans provided critical help.

The president's support of NAFTA was tepid at the outset, providing a source of great optimism to organized labor and other NAFTA enemies in Clinton's party. But his effort turned fierce by the end, surprising even his allies.

Looking back, Clinton's aides and other NAFTA supporters said they saw no specific turning point on the path to victory. But a first big step came on Sept. 14.

With former Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush at his side in the East Room of the White House, Clinton delivered a forceful argument for NAFTA. Republicans, who knew they would have to find the most votes, were questioning Clinton's commitment.

"He put his prestige on the line," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. "For us, that ended any questions of his commitment."

Even so, Clinton was nowhere close to victory.

He recruited William Daley of the Chicago political family to lead his NAFTA lobbying, and every morning at 9:15 Daley's crew assembled to give him the news, most of it glum.

For weeks, their chart of House Democrats backing NAFTA had but 32 names, and as October turned to November, the cause looked lost.

Efforts to win over blocs of voters - like the delegation from Massachusetts during a trip to Boston - were scuttled.

"It required an enormous amount of the president's time, but the only way to win was member by member," said a senior aide. "The more time we got, the more votes we won."

The result was a trickle, and then a flood. Two influential House Democratic leaders, first Vic Fazio of California and then Steny Hoyer of Maryland, endorsed NAFTA. …

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