WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor held out little hope Thursday that an agreement can be completed to bring Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1996.
The key obstacle, Kantor said, is the difficulty of gaining from the U.S. Congress the crucial negotiating authority needed to expand the agreement with Mexico and Canada to include Chile.
His comments, in a breakfast interview with editors and reporters in The Times' Washington bureau, echo a view that he has expressed only in private and only in recent days.
They exemplify the tough road the administration will face next year in carrying out its aggressive open-trade agenda.
Over the last three years, that agenda often has been at odds with congressional Democrats who represent some of the most important states in a Democratic election-year coalition. Many of those Democrats say the increased imports resulting from open trade mean fewer jobs for Americans. Advocates of open trade say that lowered trade barriers would increase U.S. jobs by increasing opportunities for exports.
Election-year dynamics suggest a potential pause in a trade approach that has brought 20 trade agreements with Tokyo during the Clinton administration and a 32% increase in U.S. exports to Japan since Clinton took office.
The case for Chile to join the trade accord, which a year ago the administration had hoped to bring about quickly, illustrates the political problems facing the administration in the trade arena.
Republicans and Democrats alike have raised objections to approving the "fast-track" authority that is demanded in negotiations to avoid a lengthy and uncertain fight when the pact reaches Congress.
Under rules of fast-track provisions, Congress has only limited authority to make changes in the terms of a trade pact when it reaches the floor of the House and Senate. Although Congress often balks at allowing itself only an up or down vote, trade partners are reluctant to negotiate with a U.S. administration operating without fast-track authority, because Congress could spend months trying to amend a pact even after it has been completed.
In his interview, Kantor said, "Given the fight over fast-track and given the state of the negotiations, given the complexity of it and so on, it would be highly unlikely that [Chile's accession to the free-trade pact] would come before the Congress before Nov. 5."