WASHINGTON — The Senate on Saturday approved the North American Free Trade Agreement, ending with little flourish a national debate that a week ago had threatened to throw out the pact entirely and complicate Clinton Administration plans for expanded trade agreements with other parts of the world.
The vote was 61 to 38. As was the case earlier in the House, Republicans supplied the most support, accounting for 34 of the favorable votes to 27 from the Democrats.
California's two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both voted against the agreement.
In a debate that ranged over three days, the Senate echoed the fears and hopes inherent in the trade plan--chiefly whether it would produce new jobs in the United States from expanded export sales or just send needed jobs in struggling American industries to low-wage Mexico instead.
But with passage not in doubt, the clash of views lacked much of the rancor that characterized the closely contested vote Wednesday in the House of Representatives.
The only major step remaining on the agreement in Washington is President Clinton's signature. Vice President Al Gore and Thomas (Mack) McLarty, the White House chief of staff, are expected to visit Mexico, perhaps as early as this week, to discuss with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari the specific steps leading up to implementation of the trade accord.
The Mexican Legislature is expected to approve the pact without significant opposition this week.
The final moves in Canada to seal the agreement remain uncertain. The Parliament has approved the plan, but Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who must issue a final proclamation to put it into effect, has expressed reservations about some details. U.S. and Canadian officials discussed the matter at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Seattle and said they are hopeful of making progress on the issues soon.
Although debate in the Senate lacked the suspense and fire of the 234-200 showdown in the House, with Clinton swinging key votes with last-ditch concessions and deals, it featured the same call to extremes.
The effect of NAFTA in the United States would be a "disaster," declared Sen. Donald W. Reigle Jr. (D-Mich.). The accord, which lowers trade barriers and tariffs among the three countries, "is the ultimate expression of trickle-down economics."
Countered Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a NAFTA supporter, "Trade . . . is an ultimate vote of confidence in the American worker."
In a reflection of the extraordinary pressures the issue has placed on Democrats who support Clinton but also are allied with organized labor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) devoted most of his speech about the trade pact bemoaning its flaws but then explained he intended to vote for it.
"All of the problems that working families face . . . will be even worse if NAFTA is defeated," Kennedy said.
The agreement would go into effect Jan. 1 and would phase out tariffs, quotas and other commercial barriers over the next 15 years.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, complained that "the United States government still doesn't seem prepared to address the needs of those workers who will lose their jobs as a result of this agreement."
Like many Democrats, he echoed concerns of organized labor that the plan would encourage U.S. firms to move their manufacturing plants to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages. With U.S. tariffs lifted, the firms would be able to ship the finished products into the United States for sale duty-free.
Supporters portrayed the free-trade zone as the wave of the future, encompassing 370 million people from Yukon to Yucatan and stimulating commerce and economic growth in all three nations.
They argued that removing Mexico's tariffs--which average 10% in comparison with the average U.S. duty of 2.5%--will make American goods cheaper and more attractive to consumers in that country and will create more jobs in the American industries that produce them.
Clinton again used his weekly radio speech Saturday to boost NAFTA, calling it "more than a trading block; it's a building block in our efforts to assert America's global leadership on behalf of American jobs and opportunity."
The agreement provides momentum for the effort to sew up a liberalized trade pact with European trading partners by year's end and to begin crafting expanded trade arrangements in Asia.
Clinton, in Seattle with his trade advisers, earlier had discussed NAFTA with Chretien. "We're making progress," Chretien told reporters in a hotel lobby Friday afternoon. "Two months ago people predicted the U.S. would not talk about subsidies and dumping. They are talking about it."
In his recent election campaign, Chretien, a Liberal, presented five objections to the trade plan, which was negotiated for Canada by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Two objections, dealing with the environment and labor rights, were satisfied through the negotiation of supplemental agreements. But three others, which involve the definition of subsidies, the issue of dumping products at below-cost prices on foreign markets, and protecting Canadian energy sources, remained unresolved.
Times staff writer John Balzar in Seattle contributed to this story.