President Clinton heads to Florida today to praise the wonders of free trade, even as members of the state's delegation say they're reluctant to grant him the authority to negotiate new trade deals without congressional tinkering.
With a vote in the House and Senate looming next week, it appears a majority of the state's congressional delegation is leaning against giving Clinton so-called "fast-track" authority to push trade deals through Congress.
"The administration doesn't have the votes," said Rep. Clay Shaw, the Fort Lauderdale Republican who is chairman of the state's congressional delegation. "If they want Florida's votes, they're going to have to come up with the right answers."
The bill would give the president authority to send trade deals to Congress for up-or-down votes with no amendments. Clinton and presidents dating back to Gerald Ford have had that authority, but it expired in 1994.
At a meeting of the delegation Thursday, they threw oranges and tomatoes in the path of the bill.
Their animosity stems from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which a majority of the 23-member delegation supported. Lawmakers say the Clinton administration failed to make good on its promises to protect Florida winter vegetables from cheaper Mexican goods.
During Thursday's meeting, Rep. Mark Foley, a West Palm Beach Republican, said he felt snubbed because the Clinton administration did not give him a substantive response when the delegation wrote a letter outlining its concerns about the trade bill.
"If you're serious about (watching out for Florida interests), how can a delegation this size be treated like this?" he asked.
As part of Clinton's lobbying effort, Foley and Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, are flying with him aboard Air Force One to Florida this morning. Both are undecided on the trade bill.
While in Florida, Clinton will visit a Riviera Beach shipping company that relies on exports for 80 percent of its business.
Clinton has gotten support from Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, who is helping to round up Democratic votes. Davis said he, too, wants Florida farmers protected, but he thinks the bill should be passed.
"Without the bill, we have no ability to even discuss further trade agreements with Latin America and other countries," Davis said. "With the bill, at least we have a fighting chance to negotiate agreements that will benefit the Tampa Bay area, Florida and the country."
With the House vote expected to be close, the 23-member delegation could extract some concessions from the administration, as it did during the 1993 NAFTA debate.
Administration officials told the delegation Thursday they were addressing Florida's concerns, but that didn't seem to appease the opponents.
Rep. Michael Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican, said he was leaning against the bill because he thinks the Clinton administration has reneged on earlier promises to Florida.
Rep. Karen Thurman, a Dunnellon Democrat, voted against it in the House Ways and Means committee. Clinton has met with her three times, including a visit in the Oval Office. She agrees with Clinton that "there is a case to be made" for fast track. But she fears opening up the borders without protections for Florida agriculture could devastate the industry. "I just don't know that we could sustain those kinds of hits and keep a viable industry," Thurman said.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, an Indian Rocks Beach Republican, said he had not taken a position on the bill but he was concerned about the difficulty Florida farmers have faced since NAFTA. "Most of the Florida members would like to have more of a firm commitment that our state's interests are going to be protected," he said.
Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Jacksonville Republican, said she is leaning against the bill because NAFTA has hurt the vegetable industry.
In the Senate, where the authority might attract 60 or more votes, both Floridians support the authority. "The bottom line is that Florida is a state that greatly benefits by increasing trade," said Sen. Connie Mack.
Shaw said many members in the delegation are flexible and could still support the bill if they get what they want from Clinton.
"The Florida delegation is against fast track now," said Shaw. But "I think a lot of those votes can be turned around."