That sentiment was echoed by Thomas Donahue, the secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, which was at the forefront of the opposition and found itself in an angry war of words with the first Democratic President elected since 1976.
Donahue blamed the failure to defeat the agreement on "an orgy of deal-making" and said that the labor movement would find it "hard" to support the reelection campaigns next year of lawmakers "who voted against our interests."
Clinton sought in his remarks after the vote to mend fences with the Democratic leaders who fought so desperately over the issue. Leaders of the opposition were "passionate defenders of working people," he said, and "were right to speak out." But he added that in the end "we simply cannot advance the security of Americans by building walls. . . ."
In Mexico City, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari called House approval of the agreement "a rejection of protectionist tendencies."
"The agreement is for Mexico an additional instrument that can be added to the previous changes we have made because they are good for the nation," he said.
Salinas pledged that Mexico will not change its free-market economic policies and cautioned against unrealistic expectations from the trade agreement. "The most important effort remains the internal effort," he said, vowing that Mexico will continue to try to diversify its international trade ties.
In Seattle, where he is attending the 15-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, Canadian Trade Minister Roy McLaren told reporters: "I welcome the affirmation in the U.S. House of Representatives of an outward-looking attitude and rejection of protectionist tendencies."
McLaren also said he is optimistic about reaching agreement with the United States to meet concerns expressed by his nation's new prime minister, Jean Chretien. Chretien had said that, among other things, he wants a tougher mechanism for settling disputes.
"I am quite confident that we'll be able to reach agreement in the near future about how we might best proceed," McLaren said.
In Tokyo, Kyodo news agency reported that Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa welcomed passage of the trade agreement by the House. "If it had been rejected, there would have been fears the protectionist movement in the United States would strengthen," he said. "Our country welcomes it too."
As the vote neared in Washington, the debate had widened far beyond the narrow confines of trade policy to encompass the fears and uncertainties gripping the nation as it ponders its role in the shifting global economy.
"This is a debate between the future and clinging to the past," said House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who equated the movement into an era of free trade from the Yukon to Yucatan with the U.S. program to rebuild Europe after World War II.
The seemingly rote debate that prevailed throughout the afternoon was disrupted by brief demonstrations. At one point, four people showered fake $50 bills imprinted "trading pork for poison" from the visitors gallery. The participants were ejected by authorities.
Throughout the day, the gallery was nearly full. In the evening, a line of people stretched 100 yards across the third floor of the Capitol all the way to the Senate, as onlookers waited their turn to witness a potentially historic debate.
The issues raised in the yearlong battle have cut across party lines, pitting Democrats against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans.
State delegations have also found themselves divided, as representatives from districts that would clearly benefit from the agreement fought for passage and those from threatened communities bitterly challenged its approval.
On one level, the debate was about economics, particularly the crucial question of jobs: Would the trade pact mean a loss of jobs to Mexico--the "giant sucking sound" predicted by billionaire Ross Perot, a NAFTA opponent--or would the creation of new markets bring with it new jobs supplying consumers south of the border?
"Are you on the side of the Fortune 500 or are you on the side of the unfortunate 500,000 who will lose their jobs?" Bonior asked. "It's not fair to ask Americans to compete against Mexican workers who earn $1 an hour or less."
But on another level the debate was cast as a watershed event that would measure anew America's place in a changing global order: Would the world's largest single economy embrace a free-trade agreement, with all the risks and benefits such pacts have posed in the past, or would it retain tariffs intended to protect struggling industries and agriculture?
The debate addressed the environment: Would the agreement reward Mexico for years of lax enforcement of environmental regulations by encouraging increased cross-border trade?