DEADLOCK BETWEEN Republican free-trade purists and a Clinton administration vulnerable to pressure from labor and environmental groups has all but doomed prospects for early legislation that would allow the United States to pursue new trade agreements in credible fashion.
At issue is the "fast trade" authority that has enabled recent presidents to negotiate trade agreements that have to be voted up or down by Congress without being picked apart by special-interest amendments. This power was essential in establishing U.S. bona fides with other countries in drawing up pacts establishing NAFTA and a new World Trade Organization.
If other countries cannot rely on the ability of a president to obtain ratification of trade agreements, they are reluctant to negotiate. Only the U.S., among major trading nations, presents such parliamentary roadblocks.
In pushing NAFTA through Congress, President Clinton resisted demands that the U.S. impose its own labor and environmental standards on Mexico as part of the treaty. Instead they were dealt with as side agreements with somewhat less standing in law. In engineering this maneuver, the administration did not quite mollify two key Democratic constituencies, organized labor and environmentalists.
As a result, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor has sought to incorporate a good part of their agenda in the provisions of a new "fast track" authority. This, in turn, has caused GOP free traders on Capitol Hill and industries with multi-national operations to balk.
If this deadlock is to be broken this year, it probably would require the departure of Mr. Kantor to run Mr. Clinton's re-election campaign and his replacement with Thomas McLarty, the president's boyhood chum and White House counselor, who is well regarded in business circles. Lately, he has been coordinating trade policy with Latin America.
If Mr. McLarty can reconcile American business, labor, environmental and political elements, perhaps "fast track" authority could be granted without a hiatus of up to two years. This would boost the U.S. trade outlook, especially in helping the Western Hemisphere compete with Europe and the Pacific Rim.