Bush to sign free trade agreement


WASHINGTON -- President Bush will sign the North American Free Trade Agreement on Dec. 17, while President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada will sign the pact the same day in their countries, the White House announced yesterday.

The agreement, which would eliminate trade barriers among Canada, Mexico and the United States, will not take effect until legislatures in all three countries have approved it or legislation putting its provisions into law.

But the signing is nonetheless significant for two reasons.

It will make it harder for President-elect Bill Clinton to make any changes in the agreement's text, and it insures that Congress will have to put the implementing legislation on a fast-track process, which permits no amendments.

The process provides that any trade agreement signed by June 1 must be taken up by Congress on a yes-or-no basis.

Mr. Clinton and his transition team were not consulted before the announcement, but Democrats did not seem to mind, in part because trade issues are politically touchy and addressing them exposes deep fissures within the Democratic Party over whether to open U.S. markets further to international competition.

Yet sentiment is growing in Congress to rein in the Bush administration.

The administration has engaged in a post-election flurry of trade policy initiatives. Carla A. Hills, the U.S. trade representative, threatened a trade war with the European Community two days after Bush's electoral defeat and ended up striking a broad trans-Atlantic deal two weeks ago to reduce farm subsidies.

Mr. Clinton has endorsed the North American pact, but he has promised not to sign legislation putting its provisions into law until he has negotiated three side agreements and has won congressional passage of four other provisions to protect U.S. workers.

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