President Clinton’s controversial fast-track trade bill hung by a thread Thursday despite an 11th-hour television appeal by the president in anticipation of a climactic floor showdown Friday.
With less than 24 hours to go before a make-or-break roll call, backers said they were still at least a dozen votes short of the 218 needed, even with the deals the administration was cutting to attract votes.
An anxious President Clinton took to the airwaves Thursday night to call on lawmakers to approve the legislation, which would allow the president to get a quick up-or-down vote from Congress on new international trade accords. Fast-track, he said, is needed to “advance (U.S.) economic interests” and “advance our ideals.”
“A vote against fast-track will not create a single job, clean up a single toxic waste site, advance worker rights or improve the environment,” he said, alluding to opposition by labor and environmentalists.
“But it will limit America’s ability to advance our economic interests, promote our democratic ideals, our political leadership,” he said. “I call upon the House of Representatives to vote for American leadership.
Clinton and congressional Republicans said Friday’s House vote was certain to be close. “We think we can get there by tomorrow,” the president said in a news conference following his TV plea, “and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The confusion over fast-track was heightened in the Senate, which has been debating the fast-track bill all week, as Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., pushed through an amendment that would impose a four-year moratorium on new clear-air standards.
Democrats warned that Inhofe’s amendment would wreck prospects for final passage of the bill, and Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., told reporters he would seek to have the amendment removed Friday.
Meanwhile, the administration sent Vice President Al Gore and nearly the entire Cabinet to put pressure on fence-sitting House members. The effort appeared to yield few results.
“This is one of those situations where there are a large number of (lawmakers) who will tell you flat out they know what the right thing to do is, but they are under enormous political pressure,” Gore told reporters.
Analysts say defeat of the fast-track bill would be a major setback for Clinton politically and a serious blow internationally, sending a signal to U.S. trading partners that could have an impact on world financial markets.
Clinton says he needs the negotiating authority the legislation would provide to complete global talks now under way on trade in agriculture and services and to hammer out trade accords in Asia and Latin America.
Fast-track authority, which Congress has granted to every president since Ford, would allow lawmakers only to vote trade accords up or down, without possibility of changing specific provisions.
In a preliminary test vote Monday, the Senate supported the legislation, 69-31. Final Senate approval is expected if the House approves the measure Friday.