WASHINGTON — President Clinton sought to shore up support for the North American Free Trade Agreement Wednesday by naming a politically savvy backer of the pact, former Rep. James R. Jones, as U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
In a statement, Clinton said that Jones "is seasoned by years of economic leadership in both the private and public sectors."
Jones, 54, represented an Oklahoma district in the House from 1973 through 1987 and has been chairman of the American Stock Exchange since 1989. He is chairman of the American Business Conference and a former special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The announcement came on a day when Clinton and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney predicted that the trade agreement would win congressional approval despite strong opposition in the United States. The statement came as Mulroney, who is about to leave office, paid a farewell visit to Washington.
Clinton said that the accord can win passage "with a very concerted effort, if the Congress has some assurances" that the pact will not let manufacturers skirt environmental and labor protection regulations, particularly in Mexico.
"I'm going to keep plugging away and hope we can pass it," Clinton said. "I think we can."
Mulroney likened Ross Perot's attack on the agreement to that of Canada's socialists. Perot has made the pact the focus of his current political activities. He devoted a half-hour television commercial Sunday evening to his effort to block House and Senate approval, arguing that it would divert American jobs to Mexico and it "must be stopped."
Mulroney said that he had seen Perot's television appearance "and I've heard every single one of those arguments from the socialists and the protectionists in the Canadian House of Commons."
The free trade pact would eliminate tariffs and other barriers to trade among the three partners over a 15-year period. The United States and Canada signed a free trade agreement in 1988 and, Mulroney said, each country has seen its exports to the other increase by 25%, despite economic hard times.
The fate of the pact is in doubt in Congress, where it must be ratified by a simple majority in both houses. Jones, as a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, is expected to help guide the agreement on Capitol Hill as well as try to smooth the application of the measure in Mexico.
"It is a very good appointment," said Kenneth R. Maxwell, director of the Latin American project for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "There will be no more political issue dealing with Latin America than NAFTA, so it is a shrewd political move."
Jones recently produced a report for the Council on Foreign Relations endorsing the embattled trade agreement.
Before his election to Congress, Jones was a private attorney in Tulsa, Okla. He is a graduate of Oklahoma University and the Georgetown University Law School. He will succeed career diplomat John Dimitri Negroponte in Mexico City.