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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Clinton Begins Push on Trade Power

Agenda: 'Fast-track' bill is among priorities for remainder of term, he says. Some congressional Democrats are opposed.

September 10, 1997|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Unveiling his top priorities for the rest of this year and beyond, President Clinton appealed Tuesday for broadly expanded powers to make trade deals overseas and outlined an agenda that is likely to spark conflict as he strives to make a mark in the remainder of his second term.

"We do not need to be afraid to trade with the rest of the world," Clinton told an audience at American University here, even as Democratic leaders, organized labor and environmental advocates joined in opposition to the trade goals he plans to underline today in a White House address.

Although Clinton's own commitment to campaign-finance reform has been questioned, the president on Tuesday sounded unusually tough on the subject, threatening to expose those who would sabotage a key bill to "the full glare of public light."

He also pledged to help shore up Social Security for the long haul and argued that his choice for ambassador to Mexico, former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, deserves a hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Clinton also reiterated his support for "high, clear, uniform academic standards" backed by national testing, a plan that is under assault in Congress.

Unstated by the president on Tuesday was the emerging sense that he has limited time to accomplish all his aims, with the first year of his final term drawing to a close. Congressional leaders want to adjourn by mid-November, if not sooner. Moreover, the congressional elections of 1998 and the presidential election campaign in 2000 will whittle away at the time he has left to accomplish his goals.

In "the face of good news, the easiest thing to do is to rest, to take a vacation, to believe our work is done and to be satisfied that our challenges are met," the president said in remarks that were at times philosophical, at others challenging. "But complacency is not an option, and vacations have to remain short."

Among the more contentious of his aims is the goal of expanded trade powers, particularly at a time when public opinion polls have shown widespread skepticism about the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The authority Clinton seeks, dubbed "fast track," would enable him to negotiate trade deals that Congress could not amend. The law that granted such authority to his predecessors in the Oval Office has expired.

But as a condition of renewing it, some Democrats, including House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), would require U.S. trading partners to guarantee certain wage levels and environmental protections in their own countries. Others in Congress, including many Republicans, view such requirements as inappropriate.

In his speech, Clinton--who pushed NAFTA through Congress despite heated opposition from within his own party--sounded evangelical about the benefits of broadened trade in an increasingly global economy.

It "will promote peace; it will promote freedom; it will promote stability; it will raise the level of living standards in other parts of the world even as it maintains America as the world's most prosperous nation," he declared.

Democrats in Congress remain skeptical about the potential effect of such new authority on American workers, and urged the administration to include in the legislation sufficient provisions protecting labor and the environment.

As of late Tuesday, administration officials were still struggling to find compromise language that might capture a majority of votes on Capitol Hill.

The matter of expanded presidential powers over trade was not the only inflammatory issue Clinton discussed Tuesday. Speaking to the university audience, he also said that "we have a responsibility to improve the way our political system works," and reiterated his call for passage of a campaign-finance reform bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) that would ban the unlimited contributions known as "soft money" and impose other restrictions.

Every year, Clinton lamented, we "have seen the bills blocked by a filibuster in the United States Senate--every single year. Now the people who don't want it this year say they're going to do it all over again. They may do it, but if they do it this year we intend to see that it happens in the full glare of the public light."

The president also sought to step up pressure on Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has refused to grant a confirmation hearing to Weld, a Republican who is Clinton's choice for ambassador to Mexico. "I believe still that he is the best person to be ambassador to Mexico," Clinton said of the nominee, whom Helms considers too liberal on a range of social issues.

Clinton added: "I believe when a president nominates someone for a job, that person is entitled to a hearing."

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