WASHINGTON -- On the eve of a scheduled House vote, a Republican-led drive to expand President Clinton's powers to negotiate trade treaties seemed all but dead Thursday, a victim of campaign-season partisanship.
Though none would say so publicly, many Republicans, Democrats and lobbyists supporting the "fast track" powers conceded privately that it would be defeated or seemed all but certain to lose. Even so, the Capitol was the scene of numerous meetings involving lawmakers, union leaders and business lobbyists as both sides tried to salvage what they could.
"A lot of people don't want a vote, but if they actually have to vote a lot of them will vote yes," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the No. 4 House GOP leader, Like other supporters, he tried to put a positive face on the situation.
"Fast track" was one of Clinton's top priorities last fall, when a House vote was canceled at the last moment in the face of a likely defeat. The legislation would renew the president's authority to negotiate international trade treaties without allowing Congress to amend them. Every president since Harry Truman has had this power.
GOP leaders scheduled a new vote for Friday, less than six weeks before Election Day, Nov. 3.
That move angered the White House and many congressional Democratic supporters of the expanded powers. They complained that Republicans just wanted to drive an election-season wedge between Democrats and their union and environmental backers, who say "fast track" does not adequately protect workers and the environment.
As a result, Democrats and Republicans alike say that only about half the 40 or so Democrats who were ready to support "fast track" last fall seemed likely to do so again.
If that occurred, the proposal almost certainly would die in the 435-member House, because lobbyists and aides said about 170 Republicans were ready to support the bill.
The Senate does not plan to vote on "fast track," but probably would approve it.
"It's incomprehensible, but Republicans have succeeded in making trade a partisan issue," said Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., a leading Democratic supporter last autumn who now is ready to vote against the legislation.
All the top three Democrats who last year supported "fast track" were opposing it this time: Matsui and Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Vic Fazio, D-Calif. The White House also opposed the vote, a sharp contrast to last year, when Matsui said it helped swing deals with a dozen or more Democrats in exchange for their support.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. and other GOP leaders argue that with the country's farmers hurt by low crop prices and the world's ailing economies, the proposal should draw extra votes now from lawmakers representing agricultural districts.
Because of those same factors, some Republicans say privately that a defeat would help the GOP by forcing farm-state Democrats to support the treaty or vote no and face retribution from angry agrarian voters.
"I think the Democrats ... are going to have to take that vote and they're going to have to go home and campaign back home," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
Even in defeat, the vote also affords Republicans a chance to mend fences with the business community, a key source of campaign financing. Business has been angry with Republicans for not supporting $18 billion Clinton has proposed for the International Monetary Fund, which helps foreign countries prop up their economies.
"This is a Gingrich effort to cater to big business before an election," said House Minority Whip David Bonior, D-Mich., a "fast track" foe.
Even one of the few prominent Democrats still supporting the proposal was Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, seemed suspicious about the GOP's motives.
"Obviously, the leadership is bringing this up for political purposes," Stenholm said. He added that for many Democrats, "The politics is getting worse by the hour."
Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky also was a factor in the vote. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said he was leaning against the proposal last year but was a sure no this time after listening to his constituents.
"They don't want to see this president given any new authority," he said. "That's why I've said the president should resign. In my opinion, he has lost the trust of the American people."
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