WASHINGTON -- Administration officials said yesterday that they hoped to submit the North American Free Trade Agreement to Congress in September, as originally planned, voicing confidence that an appeals court would quickly overturn a federal court ruling that requires a study of the pact's environmental effects.
The Justice Department filed an appeal notice yesterday, and administration officials spoke optimistically about their chances, asserting that requiring an environmental study improperly interfered with the president's constitutional powers to negotiate international agreements.
But administration officials and supporters of the pact in Congress acknowledged that if the appeals court required a lengthy environmental study, then winning congressional approval would be substantially delayed -- and perhaps endangered.
"It has been obvious for several weeks that NAFTA is in trouble in Congress," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat and NAFTA supporter who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"This development gives NAFTA's opponents more ammunition and more time to mobilize," Mr. Hamilton said.
In the view of many lawmakers, Wednesday's ruling could endanger the accord if it delays a congressional vote until 1994, when House members face re-election. But others said a long delay might actually help the pact's chances because, as the U.S. economy improves and as Mexico has more time to show it is addressing environmental problems, fears might diminish that the agreement will hurt the environment and American jobs.
With the administration seeking an expedited court appeal, lawyers in the case requested a schedule in which all briefs will be due by Aug.10, followed quickly by oral argument.
The administration hopes the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will hand down its decision in September, enabling the administration to submit the accord to Congress that month and perhaps even meet the deadline of winning approval before Jan. 1, when the pact is proposed to take effect.
Some legal experts predicted that the appeals court would overturn the district court's ruling because the appellate court often takes an expansive view of executive power.
But environmental lawyers said the decision of U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey requiring an environmental statement did not improperly infringe on the president's powers to negotiate a treaty.
They said that the trade accord with Canada and Mexico was less a treaty than an executive agreement that would require enabling legislation to put into effect.
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor, called Judge Richey's decision "outrageous and clearly constitutionally vulnerable" because, he said, it interfered with the president's treaty-making powers.
Judge Richey's "interpretation ofthe federal environmental statute is so broad that it would encompass virtually anything the president proposes to Congress," he said.
"I'm not normally an advocate of strong presidential power, but this decision blew my mind," Mr. Tribe said.
U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor said that notwithstanding Wednesday's ruling, the administration planned to push ahead in negotiating an environmental side agreement with Mexico.
He insisted that the free trade pact would ultimately improve environmental standards rather than endanger them.