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October 29, 1999

Nigeria Gets U.S. Help, but Bigger Plan for Africa Snags

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    WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton met on Thursday with Nigeria's recently elected President and pledged a tripling of aid to the country, his Administration's biggest initiative for Africa -- a bill that could ease Africa's access to the American market -- seemed imperiled in the Senate.

    Clinton's afternoon meeting with President Olusegun Obasanjo was an effort to show new American political support for a country tormented for decades by corruption, military dictatorship and violence. But when Obasanjo arrived here, he joined the parade of new democratic leaders who wanted to talk tariff rates and debt forgiveness. And during an afternoon news conference with Clinton, he spoke about Nigeria's new commitment to "a level playing ground" for investors, making sure that "investment can be secure."

    Obasanjo's main goal was to reduce or reschedule more than $30 billion in debt. Paying down the interest and the principal takes up a huge part of Nigeria's gross national product. At the news conference, Clinton said, "It is neither morally right nor economically sound to say that young democracies like Nigeria, as they overcome the painful legacy of dictatorship or misrule, must choose between making interest payments on their debt and investing in the health and education of their children."

    But under the debt-forgiveness plan for the world's poorest nations that Clinton announced last month, Nigeria would be only a partial beneficiary. The country has such large oil reserves that little of its debt would be forgiven outright. Instead, payments to the world's major powers and to the World Bank would largely be delayed.

    But even as he was meeting with Obasanjo Thursday, Clinton was trying to save the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which would reduce or eliminate duties on a range of products produced in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly those made with American-produced fabrics.

    Until Thursday, the bill appeared to be sailing toward easy passage. But late this afternoon, aides to the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, said the bill could be pulled from the Senate agenda on Friday because of a dispute with Democrats over amendments. This also threatened a similar trade bill for Caribbean nations, which is attached to the African bill.

    On Tuesday, bipartisan support for the trade bill -- which would mean a great amount to sub-Saharan countries but would have a barely measurable effect on the American economy -- appeared extremely strong. The Senate voted 90 to 8 to cut off a filibuster led by Senator Ernest F. Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina, who fears the effects of African imports on his state's politically powerful textile makers.

    On Wednesday, however, Lott said he feared that Democrats would try to to attach a raft of unrelated amendments to the bill. So he invoked a parliamentary maneuver to block Democrats from offering amendments.

    That infuriated Democrats who had hoped to offer amendments on raising the minimum wage, a patients' bill of rights and a Medicare prescription drug bill -- all initiatives that Clinton has supported, and which Democrats hope to turn into campaign issues.

    Clinton has been calling around on Capitol Hill -- including to Lott -- to save the bill. White House officials are clearly concerned that he not be accused of doing too little, the charge that Republicans leveled after the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty two weeks ago.

    The Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, who supports the bill, today angrily denounced the Republican procedural tactics. He said the debate now revolved around any senator's fundamental right to offer an amendment.

    Aides to Daschle said that barring a last-minute compromise, all 45 Democrats would probably vote against a second motion to cut off debate on Friday.

    About 50 Republicans are expected to vote to end the filibuster, but a spokesman for Lott, John Czwartacki, said that if the majority could not muster the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate, the majority leader would pull the bill from the Senate floor agenda.

    Czwartacki signaled that Republicans were ready to turn Clinton's own accusations of isolationism against Democrats if the procedural vote failed.

    "If there is no cloture, the Democrats will have succeeded in bowing to the worst elements of isolationism in their own party," Czwartacki said.

    Democrats said they were willing to pay that price to stand up for the larger procedural principles of the Senate.

    "This is a sham," Daschle said on the floor.

    "There is nothing deliberative about the Senate today.

    They want to make this a legislative assembly line.

    You take something up, you vote it up or down, and you move it along."

    Thursday night, Lott and Daschle met to discuss a compromise, but it was unclear whether they would reach agreement before Friday's vote.

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