WASHINGTON — Six years after it was poised to become NAFTA's "fourth amigo," Chile is quietly beginning talks with a lame-duck Clinton administration on a bilateral free-trade agreement.

That would leave it to the next administration to nail down a pact that could be a model for a hemisphere-wide trade agreement — and which also could reignite labor and environmental debates that effectively torpedoed Chile's entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos announced the negotiations Wednesday in a lunchtime speech during a tour of San Jose, Calif.; the White House issued a six-paragraph statement shortly afterward.

The low-key approach contrasted with President Clinton's announcement at the end of 1994 Western Hemisphere summit that he would push to have Chile join NAFTA, which consists of United States, Mexico and Canada. Chile was dubbed NAFTA's "fourth amigo."

But Chile's entry into the agreement was effectively killed in 1998 when Democrats in Congress refused to give Clinton "fast-track" authority to negotiate a trade pact.

That authority would have required Congress to vote on trade agreements without having the power to change them. Opponents — mostly Democrats — feared it could lead to agreements that ignore labor and environmental concerns.

Unable to enter NAFTA, Chile hoped to reach a separate agreement with the United States. But there was little movement on the U.S. side. Meanwhile, the United States signed a free-trade pact with Jordan and, just two weeks ago, said it would begin negotiations with Singapore.

Chilean diplomats felt they were being bypassed — and let the United States know it.

"It's very clear we had been considered to be the country with which the United States would first sign a free trade agreement," Chilean Ambassador Andres Bianchi said Thursday in a telephone interview from San Jose.

When the Singapore negotiations were announced, "we felt perhaps we should be next on line," he said.

The United States' two-way trade with Chile last year was just under $6 billion — a tiny fraction of U.S. trade with its NAFTA partners. But a free-trade agreement would have symbolic importance in recognizing Chile's economic stability and its transition to democracy since dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down in 1990.

An agreement also could be seen as an important step toward the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the hemisphere-wide trade zone that the Clinton administration hopes will be approved by 2005.

Preliminary talks with Chile will begin in mid-December and a U.S. delegation will go to Chile in January, said Brendan Daly, spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky.

Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush both have advocated expanding free trade, so they are likely to continue the talks with Chile.

But Democrats and Republicans have different views about how agreements should be constructed. Democrats generally want strong language guaranteeing labor rights and environmental standards written into the agreement; Republicans prefer addressing the issues in more limited side agreements.

The White House said it wants the issues in the main agreement, and Bianchi said Chile had no objections to that.

Some Republicans were concerned, though, that this could influence the structure of a hemisphere-wide agreement and wish Clinton had let the next administration begin the negotiations.

"I think it is a bit foolish to be engaging in this process at the tail end of an administration," said Georges Fauriol, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an active Bush supporter.

It is also uncertain whether fast-track authority will be restored for the next president — or if it's needed.

"I think you can do a straightforward bilateral agreement without fast-track authority," said Thomas McLarty, Clinton's former White House chief of staff and a consultant on Latin America. "I think Congress has shown a propensity to vote for specific trade agreements."

But any agreement also would face a Congress in which Democratic strength has grown. And the same groups that opposed fast-track and NAFTA are looking warily at a Chilean free-trade agreement.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said if the agreement doesn't go beyond NAFTA in addressing labor rights, safety, environmental and other issues, "it's not going to happen."

Daniel Seligman of the Sierra Club, said he was waiting to see how negotiations unfold.

"If the agreement is framed in the right way, it could be a win-win for business and for the environment. So far, we have not seen that in any recent trade agreement, but we still hold out hope that the Chile deal will set a good precedent," he said.