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The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee has been consulting with Mexican lawmakers on ways to help reduce that country's massive foreign debt and expand its market for U.S. farm goods.

"The long-term potential for the growth of the United States' exports is greater in Mexico than in virtually any other country in the world," said Rep. E. (Kika) de la Garza, D-Texas, in a recent interview."Mexico is already our third-largest trading partner in the world, and the potential for expansion of that trade is directly proportional to our ability to foster trade in both directions," said de la Garza.

De la Garza said he urged the three senators - Mario Niebla Alvarez, Jose de Jesus Padilla and Bul-maro Pacheco - to weigh the idea of a free-trade agreement with this country, similar to the ones the United States has with Israel and Canada.

Those agreements call for elimination of most tariffs between the parties over the next decade.

De la Garza said that to begin with such an accord with Mexico could be limited to individual sectors such as automotive or agriculture.

He said he is also asking Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady to consider broadening banking guidelines to permit Mexico to capitalize part of its external debt - a means of converting interest on the debt into part of the loan.

That way less cash would leave Mexico to service its $105 billion debt, and the money could be injected into the economy to produce additional exports, de la Garza said.