WASHINGTON -- President Bush promised Congress yesterday that he would include protections for American workers and safeguards for the environment in a free trade agreement with Mexico for which he is seeking broad negotiating authority.
In a detailed response to concerns raised by congressional leaders, Mr. Bush offered a number of concessions on key issues that were regarded as a strong bid toward persuading the lawmakers to allow him to strike an accord that they could then only accept or reject without amendment.
Chairmen of the House and Senate committees that will have the strongest impact on granting Mr. Bush the "fast track" negotiating authority offered strong support for the proposal yesterday.
Reaction elsewhere on Capitol Hill was also generally positive.
Sharp opposition is still expected from some labor and environmental groups, who complain that Mr. Bush's promises did not go far enough and that he has not provided for adequate means to enforce the safeguards.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who is considered an important voice on the issue, refused to offer a judgment until he had studied the response more closely -- a move that may allow him to bargain for greater concessions.
Even so, the president is believed to have taken some of the force out of his critics' arguments. His answer to fears that U.S. workers would suddenly lose their jobs to cheap Mexican labor included:
* Steps to guard against sudden impacts on U.S. industries by phasing out trade barriers.
* Temporary reinstatement of such barriers in emergency cases.
* Readjustment assistance for dislocated workers.
* Cooperative efforts with Mexico to ensure that standard labor practices are being applied there as well.
To answer the complaints of those worried that a burst of new American business would further darken the heavily polluted Mexican skies, Mr. Bush pledged to uphold current U.S. regulations, appoint environmentalists as trade advisers and pursue several cooperative programs with Mexico.
Those would include establishing a border control plan to deal with air and water pollution, hazardous waste and chemical spills that affect both countries, along with stricter enforcement of Mexico's existing environmental laws.
"These are commitments not just to consider key areas like worker adjustment, worker rights and the environment, but to make progress in those areas before any agreement is sent to Congress for action," said Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
"This response contains some significant concessions by the administration."
Representative Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, called Mr. Bush's response "comprehensive and compelling" and announced his full support for granting the president the negotiating authority, while withholding judgment on the final treaty.
Mr. Bush is seeking a two-year extension of broad negotiating powers that have been granted to presidents since 1974.
He insisted yesterday that both the U.S. and Mexican economies would get a mighty boost by a dropping of the trade barriers.
He noted at a White House gathering of fast-track supporters that Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari "has already made some dramatic changes in that society and in that economy and in his approach to the environment. . . . He is entitled to a fair shake in all of this, and I am determined that he get it."
Meanwhile, Mr. Salinas also made a pitch for the free trade agreement in a Labor Day speech in Mexico City, saying that it would provide new technology, investments and jobs.
The Mexican leader said the agreement would have "periods of adjustments" to offset the economic differences between his nation and the more developed economies of the United States and Canada, which will also be a partner in the plan.
But the agreement was by no means fully supported by the thousands of workers participating in the annual Labor Day parade.
Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a Mexican political scientist who advises Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, leader of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, said that Mr. Bush's response was an effort to sidetrack the environmental and labor rights issues from the free trade negotiations.
"Unless those issues are linked directly to a dispute mechanism, they will have little effect," he said.
"Unfortunately, many Americans don't realize that Mexico has a surfeit of labor and environmental laws. What is lacking is enforcement. Without safeguards built into the talks, these issues will simply go by the board to the detriment of Mexico," Mr. Aguilar Zinser added.