President Clinton, fearing defeat in his quest for expanded trade negotiating authority, made an extraordinary televised appeal for support on Thursday night, accusing interest groups of intimidating members of the House who might otherwise vote for the bill.
Opponents of the so-called fast-track legislation gained new ground on Thursday, prompting Clinton to cut short a trip to Texas for the dedication of the George Bush presidential library and return to Washington to lobby publicly and privately for votes.
Also making a last-minute appeal and gaining some promises of "no" votes was House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who opposes the trade measure.
Clinton warned that defeat of the trade measure would damage the international standing of the United States and threaten growth in the domestic economy.
"A vote against fast track will not create a single job, clean up a single toxic waste site, advance workers' rights or improve the environment anywhere in the world," he said in an urgent appeal issued from the White House briefing room at the request of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is supporting the president's trade measure. "But it will limit America's ability to advance our economic interests, promote our democratic ideals, our political leadership."
Clinton argued that if the House vote were taken in secret, "it would pass overwhelmingly" but that members of Congress were under intense pressure to vote against the measure, an oblique reference to the political clout of organized labor, which opposes it.
He said he was not asking for the vote to be postponed.
"We think we can get there by tomorrow night and that's what we're trying to do," he said. Clinton had more than half his Cabinet fanned out across the Capitol earlier on Thursday to pressure wavering lawmakers in advance of today's critical House vote.
But as Cabinet secretaries went from office to office, Gephardt and Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, the Democratic House whip, defiantly led their own battle. At midday, Gephardt appeared at a news conference to showcase 15 previously undecided Democrats who had decided to vote against the trade bill.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California said she opposed the measure out of fear that global trade would lead to a "race to the bottom" unless the administration made labor rights a negotiating point.
Gephardt began the day in his office describing squalid living conditions on the Mexican side of the border. He said he wanted global trade to improve standards of living by committing the United States to fight just as hard for labor and environmental protections as it does for intellectual property rights.
Clinton has argued that the trade authority known as "fast track" is crucial for the United States to maintain a leading role in global trade. The legislation strengthens the president's negotiating power by providing that free-trade pacts can be approved or defeated by Congress but not amended.