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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 6, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---Standing by the Governor, key members of the CNMI Legislature yesterday lashed out at the "strong-arm tactic" being used by the Clinton administration to push a federal takeover proposal in the Northern Marianas despite overwhelming rejection by island leaders.

They defended Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio for allegedly agreeing to the plan during a brief meeting with President Bill Clinton on Guam last November, saying that the local chief executive might have been misunderstood.

Senate Floor leader Pete P. Reyes said it was unlikely for the Governor to veer away from his long-standing opposition against the takeover move, especially after CNMI has spent millions of dollars to thwart the federal agenda.

"Our position has always been not to allow the federal takeover of our labor, immigration and minimum wage laws because of its devastating impact on our economy," he said in an interview yesterday.

"The Governor knows that," Reyes explained, "and I believe this is another strong-arm tactic by the federal government to muscle their way into the commonwealth."

The Chair of the House committee on Federal and Foreign Relations likewise expressed disbelief that Tenorio would agree to such a plan without consulting the legislature and the NMI people who apparently were caught by surprise over the report.

"This is purely a misunderstanding between the Governor and President Clinton," Rep. Melvin Faisao said in a separate interview.

Both legislators were commenting on the letter sent to Tenorio by the U.S. President dated December 7 in which Clinton had strongly suggested that the island Governor had agreed to the planned federalization of the commonwealth.

While Tenorio has refused to comment on the letter, he has reiterated his stand to pursue reforms in local immigration and labor standards to address Washington's concerns.

Senate President Paul A. Manglona maintained those were the issues raised during the talks that transpired between Tenorio and Clinton on the sideline of his stopover visit to Guam last Nov. 23 en route to the U.S. capital.

"There was a brief discussion on the progress made by the CNMI on labor and immigration issues," he said. "It was unfortunate that a misunderstanding had to occur."

But Manglona expressed optimism that the problem would be ironed out during a forthcoming meeting between key CNMI officials and Edward B. Cohen, Clinton's special representative to the bilateral talks provided under Section 902 of the Covenant.

"I hope we don't make a big deal out of the letter," he said, adding that the Jan. 18 informal talks should not be dampened because of the misunderstanding.

Underscoring Tenorio's insistence against dropping the contentious issues on labor and immigration straining bilateral relations in the 902 meeting, Faisao said it was very clear from the outset that his position has been "mutual consent."

Reyes said: "Whoever drafted that letter, he had drafted that letter with the intent to make a statement that is a misinterpretation or a convenient presentation of an untrue position."

The Northern Marianas has been hounded by persistent moves in Washington to strip local authority over immigration and minimum wage standards due to its alleged failure to curb entry of mostly Asian migrant workers into the island and the growing number of foreign-born U.S. citizens here.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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