Trade pact faces new hurdle U.S. judge orders environmental review of NAFTA

July 01, 1993|By Lyle Denniston and Carl M. Cannon | Lyle Denniston and Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau Staff writers Gilbert Lewthwaite and Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge put President Clinton in a political and diplomatic bind yesterday on the North American Free Trade Agreement by ordering his administration to conduct a new review of the pact that could scuttle it altogether.

U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey told the president's trade office to swiftly review all environmental risks posed by the trade treaty among the United States, Canada and Mexico -- a study that very likely would show major hazards and create new pressure for changes.

Even without that study, the judge said it already appears that the treaty "may worsen the environmental problems already existing" on the U.S.-Mexico border, and that it could wipe out federal and state laws that protect Americans' food, air and water.

The trade pact, revising the entire range of commercial dealings among the three North American neighbor nations, is supposed to go into effect Jan. 1. Congress would have to ratify it first, however, and that appears to be much in doubt.

Mr. Clinton's trade representative, Mickey Kantor, denounced the ruling as a major affront to the president's foreign policy powers and vowed an "expeditious" appeal. In the meantime, he said, the administration would go ahead with plans to send the treaty to Congress this fall for ratification.

But legal experts here said that the judge's ruling -- if not blocked by an appeal -- could ultimately jeopardize the treaty with Canada or Mexico, because of U.S. demands for changes that the other nations would refuse to meet. They also say the ruling could further jeopardize the treaty's chances in Congress by highlighting the environmental concerns that have contributed to congressional opposition.

Thea Lea, trade expert with the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, which opposes NAFTA, said she now expects the treaty to be delayed for at least several months. That, she said, "is enough to derail it from its current schedule. I think most probably they are going to miss their January 1, 1994, deadline."

The potential threat to the treaty's future was described pointedly yesterday by one of NAFTA's congressional supporters, Sen. John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican: "My fear is that NAFTA is finished unless this ruling is overturned. The president must appeal this ruling immediately. Hesitation or ambiguity . . . will further encourage the protectionist opponents of NAFTA to cloak their arguments in environmental rhetoric."

A key Democrat in the House, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the treaty would fail if the House were to vote on it now.

"NAFTA is in trouble because its supporters have not made an effective case for it," he said. "They have failed to answer critics' charges or to advance compelling arguments." The president himself "must make the case," Mr. Hamilton added.

Mr. Kantor and the president have said repeatedly they would not try to renegotiate the pact but would try to win concessions from Canada and Mexico in side agreements. So far, however, that process has not produced any significant gestures to mollify the treaty's critics in Congress and among consumer, conservation and labor groups.

Those groups clearly were gratified by the ruling because of its prospects for forcing Mr. Clinton's hand in diplomatic bargaining and in preparing for a major fight on Capitol Hill.

Once the NAFTA pact is submitted to Congress, it must be acted upon swiftly, under expedited procedures, and that could bring a vote in the House by Christmas. Although Judge Richey made clear that he would demand prompt completion of the new environmental-impact study, it seemed unlikely that the study could be completed before the planned submission of the treaty to Congress in September.

In that event, Mr. Clinton would be asking for ratification before the full environmental risk had been assessed, raising even further the chances of defeat in the House. A number of House members ran for election or re-election last year lambasting the treaty's potential impact on U.S. jobs and the environment.

The House unanimously passed a measure in August saying it would approve no treaty that posed a threat to U.S. "health, safety, labor, or environmental laws." Several senators also have been lobbying for change.

President Clinton himself, as a candidate, promised to work for major concessions from Canada and Mexico, giving a list of specific revisions he said would be needed.

Lori Wallach, a staff lawyer for the legal advocacy group Public Citizen, one of the three groups that sought the ruling Judge Richey issued yesterday, criticized the "side agreements" process that has occurred so far. All it has gained, she said, was some "Arkansas gravy" on the pact negotiated by the Bush administration.

"What is needed," she added, "is to create a real stew: with meat and vegetables" -- in other words, major concessions of the kind Mr. Clinton himself said he would demand.

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