WASHINGTON -- A White House plan to create a continental free trade zone from Canada to Mexico suffered a potentially serious setback yesterday, when House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt said Congress would not approve the plan as proposed by President Bush.
The threat came as activists representing unions, consumers and environmentalists vowed to lead a congressional fight to defeat the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a sweeping 2,000-page pact struck last month among Mr. Bush and his Canadian and Mexican counterparts.
Mr. Gephardt, an important congressional voice on trade, charged that the pact lacks sufficient protections for the environment and for U.S. workers who could lose jobs if it is enacted. Unless those protections are strengthened, he warned, Congress would kill the agreement, which Mr. Bush has touted as a major step toward improving the competitiveness of U.S. corporations.
"Renegotiate it," Mr. Gephardt, D-Mo., admonished in a election-year directive to Mr. Bush, "or, better, leave it for the next administration to be written right."
Christopher Allen, a spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills, said: "No renegotiation is necessary. NAFTA will generate more jobs, provide more environmental protection and make America more competitive than any other trade agreement."
Mr. Gephardt's comments followed those of consumer activist Ralph Nader, Sierra Club director Carl Pope, AFL-CIO secretary-general Thomas R. Donahue and others who oppose the agreement.
Critics fear a free trade pact with Mexico would increase environmental degradation and accelerate the transfer of American jobs south of the border, where wages are low and environmental protection is lax.
"There is only one way to beat this agreement, and that is politically," Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democratic delegate from Washington, D.C., told about 200 activists at a trade conference sponsored by several public interest groups.
Mr. Gephardt is part of a key group of congressional Democrats who support the general idea of a free trade agreement with Mexico. His objections to the pact raised serious concerns about its future because it cannot take effect without the approval of a majority in the Senate and House, both of which are controlled by Democrats.
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton has declined to take a position on the NAFTA, until after congressional hearings.
Yesterday's criticism signaled the degree of difficulty Mr. Bush faces in convincing voters of the potential benefits of the agreement, the centerpiece of his trade policy.
Mr. Bush has said the agreement would be a boon to the economy and ultimately create tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs by increasing export and investment opportunities for U.S. companies.
"Anyone who looks long-term would think the NAFTA is a good thing to do," said international trade attorney Frank J. Schuchat of the Washington firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. "But that takes some explaining. I don't think the president has done that."
Indeed, said Mr. Gephardt, the agreement has added to the anxieties of many voters already struggling in an economy that has left 10 million Americans unemployed.
"The NAFTA agreement is rapidly becoming . . . representative of everything that is wrong in their lives economically," he said. "They have come to believe that working families have no place in the president's new world order, and they know that few things besides a Bible are as important to family values as a good job."
He demanded that the pact include a tax on goods crossing the U.S.-Mexican border to help fund retraining for U.S. workers expected to lose jobs if the treaty is enacted.