WASHINGTON — A painfully divided House of Representatives approved the North American Free Trade Agreement by an unexpectedly large margin Wednesday night, ending a hard-fought battle that grew into a referendum on the fundamental changes sweeping the American economy.
The vote was 234 to 200, 16 more than the 218 needed for passage. The Senate is expected to act on the measure within days. Passage there is not in doubt.
In a brief appearance in the White House grand foyer less than an hour after the vote, a beaming President Clinton savored the come-from-behind victory and declared: "Tonight's vote is a defining moment. At a time when many of our people are hurting . . . we chose to compete and not to retreat."
The strongest support in the House came from Republicans, who cast 132 votes for the trade plan and 43 against it. Among Democrats, 102 voted for the agreement and 156 opposed it. The one independent in Congress voted against the plan.
"It is not a perfect agreement," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) in an address to his colleagues. "But this is, for the moment, an opportunity to expand our trade, to reach out beyond our borders . . . to seize the future."
"Is it good for America or not? I believe passionately it is good for America," he said.
Reflecting the division that the plan has generated, his two most senior deputies, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and House Majority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan, opposed the agreement.
"It will cost jobs. It will drive down our standard of living. It will lock in place a Mexican system that exploits its own people and denies them the most basic political and economic rights," Bonior said.
Expanding on a 5-year-old, U.S.-Canadian free-trade pact, the agreement would eliminate most tariffs, quotas and other barriers to unrestrained commerce among the United States, Mexico and Canada over a 15-year period, beginning Jan. 1, 1994.
The agreement would remove most tariffs now levied on Mexican goods entering the United States, such as the 15% surcharge slapped on electronic components manufactured south of the border. As a result, U.S. companies and their workers will be forced to compete with Mexican firms paying wages that in some cases are as little as one-tenth those paid here.
On the other side of the equation, most Mexican tariffs assessed on U.S. products would be eliminated. For example, U.S. chemical manufacturers, which now pay similar tariffs when they ship their goods to Mexico, say they expect sales to expand well beyond last year's $3 billion once the pact takes effect, giving them a competitive edge over overseas chemical concerns. U.S. firms that make other products now subject to Mexican tariffs anticipate similar benefits.
The Clinton Administration has argued that the net effect of such trade-offs, with tariffs disappearing on thousands of products, will help lift Mexico out of the economic rut in which it has been stuck for generations. The jobs created by an expanding Mexican economy, in turn, will fuel the growth of a booming consumer market anxious to purchase the products of U.S. factories, the Administration contends.
Despite the emotion that has enveloped the issue across the nation, much of the debate on Wednesday--save for the final arguments--contained little passion. The debate began at 9 a.m. and continued for approximately 13 hours.
All told, 245 representatives--an astoundingly high number--trooped to the well of the House to speak. But with the results not in doubt, they spoke not so much to influence their colleagues as to explain their votes to political supporters at home.
The House vote was widely regarded as a key test of Clinton's legislative acumen. A loss would have cast doubt on his ability to shepherd other Administration initiatives through Congress and weakened his hand in dealings with foreign leaders. The victory gives new momentum to his ambitious domestic agenda and pending trade talks with other nations.
Perhaps more important, the verdict is expected to send a strong signal of U.S. willingness to continue exercising leadership in world affairs. Some supporters argued that a rejection would have heralded a dangerous new era of isolation and protectionism.
"A vote against NAFTA is a vote for economic surrender," declared House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), one of the Administration's key allies in the congressional leadership.
If the emotion of the debate was dissipated, it was replaced by a palpable bitterness as dejected opponents angrily accused colleagues of selling their votes in exchange for promises of political support or pork-barrel rewards.
"The wounds are pretty deep, and it will take time and work to heal them" House Deputy Whip Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) said after the vote.