Bush Signals Intent to Force Vote in Congress This Year on Colombian Trade Deal
— The Bush administration signaled Wednesday that it would defy the wishes of Congressional Democrats and force a vote this year on a free trade agreement with Colombia, hinting that it would try to gain support for the pact by stoking fears of anti-American sentiment in the region.
“The Colombia agreement is pivotal to America’s national security and economic interests right now, and it is too important to be held up by politics,” President Bush told an audience of Hispanic business leaders here. “There needs to be a vote on Colombia this year.”
By itself, the Colombia pact would not have a major impact on trade, but it has become one of the administration’s international economic priorities, along with other deals with Panama and South Korea. But all these accords have stalled amid skepticism in Congress and among many other Americans.
In his talk to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Bush cited recent disputes with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, whom the United States and Colombia accuse of aiding insurgents and narcotics traffickers in Colombia. Passing the deal will support “freedom and peace” in the area, he said.
The Colombia agreement was negotiated in 2006 but never formally submitted to Congress. Once it is submitted, Congress has 90 business days to vote it up or down. The administration says that it must submit the deal soon for a vote to take place this year.
But Democrats in Congress say there are not enough votes to pass the pact, in part because of opposition by labor and environmental groups. Both Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, oppose the deal.
The trade pact would open new markets for American farm goods, machinery, organic chemicals and plastics. Trade between the United States and Colombia came to $18 billion in 2007. The United States imports grains, cotton and soybeans from Colombia, much of it duty-free under temporary accords.
Critics worry that the deal would lead to more American companies’ transferring their manufacturing to Colombia and the loss of jobs at home.
The administration has flown dozens of lawmakers, including many Democrats, to Latin America in recent months and made some headway in gaining support. An effort has also been made to win over Democratic mayors and governors whose constituents might benefit from more exports to Latin America.
But Democrats in Congress say that the administration should not try for a vote without first working out a package of aid to Americans thrown out of work by the influx of imports. Neither side rules out the possibility of such a “trade adjustment assistance” package in coming months, despite the partisan election-year atmosphere.