WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, facing a critical vote in Congress next month over its authority to negotiate with other countries on trade, will make significant environmental and job-security commitments to accompany a trade pact with Mexico, administration and congressional aides said yesterday.
The commitments are intended to sway votes in a battle that has pitted the administration and proponents of free trade against organized labor, textile interests and others who fear that loosened restrictions on trade with Mexico will result in the loss of jobs and a weakening of environmental and labor standards.
The initiatives, to be announced today, include programs to be jointly operated with Mexico to curb pollution on the border and strengthen environmental enforcement, the naming of environmentalists for the first time to official trade-advisory bodies and beefed-up efforts to assist workers who may lose their jobs because of imports.
They will be detailed in a letter from President Bush to the chairmen of the House and Senate committees responsible for trade policy -- Lloyd Bentsen of Texas at the Senate Finance Committee, and Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois at the House Ways and Means Committee.
At a meeting with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders called yesterday to discuss international trade, President Bush injected himself energetically into the fight.
"This is a priority, and we are going all out," he said, terming the negotiating authority crucial because of the growing importance of exports to economic growth.
"We need this fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements that will open markets, keep our exports strong and create jobs, and frankly, sustain our leadership in the world economy," the president said.
The current debate is part of a process that has marked all postwar trade agreements.
Because the Constitution gives Congress power to "regulate foreign commerce," the president's ability to negotiate trade agreements derives from a delegation of authority from Congress.
But the lawmakers, traditionally sensitive to domestic interests, have always demanded a price for going along in terms of increased safeguards for industry and workers.
This time, the administration is making concessions in connection with its request for a two-year extension of the "fast-track" procedure, a measure that makes trade agreements non-amendable and subject only to up-or-down votes by Congress.
Foreign countries have served notice that they will not negotiate with the United States if what they finally agree to is then subject to congressional amendment.
Extension of the fast-track authority would permit the administration to negotiate not only a special accord with Mexico but also a sweeping trade liberalization agreement with 107 countries, known as the Uruguay Round, which has been in the works for five years and could be concluded within 12 months.
Initial reaction to the administration plan was favorable.
"The administration has demonstrated sensitivity to congressional concerns," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee's Trade Subcommittee. "A vote against fast-track extension is now clearly a vote for protectionism."
Kathryn S. Fuller, president of the World Wildlife Fund, one organization expected to sit on the trade advisory panels, said, "If we can play a useful role we will." She noted that environmentalists and conservationists until now have had practically no impact on trade policy.
One result of the administration's plan may be to split the environmental lobby. Some groups, such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resource Defense Council, have taken a hard line against the fast track.
One criticism by congressional aides who have seen the letter is that while the commitments are in strong language, nothing is said about what Washington would do if Mexico does not live up to its promises.
The initiatives are in response to a March 7 letter from Mr. Rostenkowski and Mr. Bentsen asking for reassurance that the administration will address issues related to the environment, labor standards and worker displacement in seeking the fast-track extension.
The environmental commitments are the most specific. The letter pledges the two governments to a comprehensive review of environmental laws to see where they need improvement, promises no weakening of U.S. laws in the process and stresses that the United States will retain the right to limit imports that contain hazardous pesticides or other products harmful to health.
The Bush letter, according to those who have seen it, says Mexico is strengthening its enforcement budget and expanding from six to 100 the number of enforcement agents. It is also said to point out that Mexico has closed 900 plants for environmental reasons, 70 in the last three weeks.