Byline: Joyce Barrett

WASHINGTON — Retail representatives are pursuing support for a change in Mexico’s problematic certificate of origin rule for imports on three fronts: with Congress; with the Clinton administration and with U.S. Ambassador to Mexico James Jones.
This assault on the Mexican rule, which has made shipments of foreign-made goods from the distribution centers of U.S. retailers to their Mexican outlets almost impossible, was launched last week when the administration announced it planned to offer Mexico a $40 billion loan guarantee program to help it out of its currency crisis. The National Retail Federation then decided it would attempt to condition the loan guarantee program with the certificate of origin change.
With Clinton signaling he wanted the loan guarantee as free of amendments as possible, however, the retail community has broadened its quest and now is seeking assistance in a three-pronged approach.
NRF vice president and government affairs counsel Rob Hall, along with other representatives of the retail industry, traveled to Capitol Hill Thursday to press their case with Congressional staffers drafting the legislative package for the loan guarantee. They also are seeking letters of support from members of Congress that could be used to pressure the administration into coming to the retailers’ aid.
NRF officials also met with Chief Textile Negotiator Jennifer Hillman in New York earlier this week to press her to secure the backing of her office for the certificate of origin change. The retailers want Mexico to eliminate its requirement that imports into the country be accompanied by the original country of origin documentation. These documents are routinely taken by U.S. Customs when the goods come into the U.S. for distribution from central warehouses.
NRF officials also have discussed the problem with Jones, who is meeting with members of Congress to sell the package on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, the loan package, which the administration had hoped would be voted on by the House and Senate this week, is meeting obstacles from several fronts. The first objections emerged from House Democrats who are seeking numerous conditions, including forcing Mexico to institute labor reforms and environmental protections. One Democrat likely to emerge as a proponent of Mexican labor reform is House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.).
While Gephardt told reporters Thursday that he was working with the administration to come up with “reasonable conditions on the loan guarantees,” a Republican staffer working on drafting the bill said the congressman was “not cooperating with the administration.” Gephardt, the staffer said, is seeking labor reforms the administration does not want included in the deal. Gephardt was a chief opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, primarily because he said low-wage Mexican workers threatened U.S. jobs and because Mexico did not have adequate environmental protections.
Problems on another front are coming from some House Republican freshmen who campaigned against NAFTA and are vowing to oppose the Mexican loan guarantees.
Political problems also are arising. House and Senate Republican leadership is telling the Clinton administration not to count on the GOP to deliver the votes needed to pass the package and are warning that at least half the Congressional Democrats will have to support it before the Republicans will sign on.
The longer Congressional votes are delayed, the better chance the retail industry has to find advocates for its stance, Hall said.
“This is part of a campaign of friendly persuasion,” said Peter Mangione, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, who also is lobbying Congress.
When Congressional leaders were first briefed on the administration’s plans to guarantee $40 billion in loans for Mexico, it was anticipated the vote could come this week. That timetable has slipped, and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R., Kan.) told reporters Thursday it could be next week before anything is decided.
On the House side, Rep. Christopher Cox (R., Calif.), who is helping to draft the bill, said little progress had been made.
“The President is responsible for delivering the Democrats,” Cox said. “It’s a giant question mark whether it will pass the House. The administration has not been forthcoming.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D., S.C.) is drafting an alternative to the administration’s proposal that would require the Federal Reserve to attempt to stabilize the Mexican peso and that Hollings estimates could cost $3 billion. His alternative also would require Mexico to improve worker rights, liberalize the organized labor movement and raise Mexican workers’ salaries. Hollings has said he plans to delay Senate consideration of the bill by three days via a procedural move.
— Fairchild News Service