Bush Backs New Trade Pact With Colombia

President Bush on Monday signed a letter sending Congress a free trade agreement with Colombia, a move that will force a congressional vote within 90 days. Video by AP
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

President Bush announced yesterday that he is sending a Colombian free-trade agreement to Congress, moving toward a confrontation with Democrats and labor unions that he could lose during a hotly contested election year.

Bush views free trade as one of the signature issues of his presidency. He said loosening market barriers with Colombia is vital to national security and the U.S. economy and will bolster the rule of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a U.S. ally.

"Approving the free-trade agreement is one of the most important ways America can demonstrate our support for Colombia," Bush said during remarks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. "People throughout the hemisphere are watching to see what the United States will do."

The proposal prompted immediate and heated opposition from leading Democrats, who accused Bush of grandstanding and said the pact is certain to be rejected. Under "fast-track" rules negotiated with Congress, Bush's move forces lawmakers to conduct an up-or-down vote on the proposed pact within 90 legislative days.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called the agreement "a continuation of failed policies" that "have already cost countless American workers their jobs and have done profound harm to U.S. foreign policy." Reid and other Democrats argue that Colombia has failed to protect labor activists, quell violence and shut down paramilitary groups.

The proposed agreement has played a prominent role in the Democratic presidential race, with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) both opposing the pact. Clinton's chief strategist, Mark J. Penn, quit the campaign Sunday after it was disclosed that, as president of the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm, he met with Colombia's U.S. ambassador to discuss the pact.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in a statement that Bush's move to push the agreement "shows an outrageous disregard for basic human and workers' rights." He pointed to the kidnappings and murders of union supporters in Colombia.

Most Republicans, including the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), support the agreement. But Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a moderate Republican, came out in opposition to it yesterday.

The United States and Colombia completed an agreement in 2006, then renegotiated its terms last year under demands from Democrats to toughen labor and environmental standards. The House will have 60 days to vote on the proposals without changes, followed by 30 days for the Senate to do the same.

The administration says the agreement would open up Colombia to many U.S products currently subject to stiff duties. Most Colombian goods can be exported duty-free to the United States under yearly agreements, but the new pact would make the arrangement permanent.

Trade between the two countries totaled a modest $18 billion in 2007, including coffee, fruit and clothing from Colombia and automobiles and farm machinery from the United States.

The accord has a slim chance of passage, as the two Democratic presidential candidates compete for labor backing while the economy sags under the weight of housing and credit meltdowns.

Nonetheless, Bush has made the agreement a major goal for his final year, casting it as crucial for improved national and economic security. He also is hoping for passage of pending trade agreements with Panama and South Korea.

In remarks yesterday, Bush said Uribe has made great strides in quelling violence and in battling the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a Marxist guerrilla force that the U.S. government has designated a terrorist group. Bush also cast the trade pact as leverage against the "hostile and anti-American regime in Venezuela," whose president, Hugo Chávez, has expressed support for the FARC.

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