President Bush on Monday embraced a plan by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien for creation of a hemispheric free trade area and said he would ask Congress for fast-track authority to negotiate the pact.
"I want the people of my country to understand that the foreign policy priority of my administration will be this hemisphere," Bush said during a break from a dinner and private meeting with Chretien.
Chretien, whose aides earlier had made comments critical of Bush and some of his policies, noted he was "the first foreign leader to come and visit with you."
Chretien had asked for the meeting after the White House announced that Bush's first visit abroad would be to Mexico, not Canada, as had been the practice with some of his predecessors.
Bush will visit Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, Feb. 17.
Fast-track authority would give Bush complete authority to negotiate the treaty, with Congress having only an up or down vote on it.
Earlier in the day, Chretien made a plea to the Organization of American States for creation of the free trade area extending from Canada's Baffin Island to Tierra Del Fuego, at the tip of South America.
The largest trade alliance in the hemisphere is the North American Free Trade Agreement that includes Canada, the United States and Mexico, negotiated by former President Bill Clinton's administration.
Before the dinner, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer moved to put a positive spin on the meeting after widespread Canadian press reports indicated Chretien's government was offended at Bush's plans for the Mexican trip.
Bush said he had no preference for Mexico over Canada. "I've got a preference for friends," he said, "and the Canadians are long-standing friends of the United States."
Last spring, Chretien's nephew, Raymond Chretien, then-ambassador to the United States, publicly said Canada would be better off if Bush were defeated by Democrat Al Gore.
"I didn't pay attention to it if he said that," said Bush responding to a question about the former ambassador's comments. "I'm going to prove him wrong. . . . I didn't have any impression whatsoever that the prime minister came with any preconceived notion except one thing -- that I will promote friendly relations with Canada."
Chretien said, "Our relations will be very good."
"We have common interests," the prime minister said in French, through a translator. "We'll have different interests . . . and it's very good that Canada be seen as an independent country."
At their news conference, neither leader touched on sensitive issues that Chretien aides have raised in the past few months.
Canada's foreign minister had joined Russia and China in opposing Bush's missile defense system.
And Canada's environment minister, David Anderson, has voiced opposition to Bush's plan to drill for oil in northeastern Alaska.
Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, said earlier he was "concerned President Bush may not be fully aware of the myriad issues confronting the U.S. along the northern border and how they differ from the southern border both in type and scope."
Chretien's OAS speech contained the elements of a lecture to Latin American nations about economic equality and openness.
"The gap between our rich and poor remains too large," said Chretien. "Our emerging democracies lack strong institutions. Our social policies have room for improvement."
Although Canada has been a member of the OAS since 1990, this was the first time a Canadian prime minister has ever given a speech to the organization.