The Washington Post
Monday, April 7, 2008

Bush Sends Congress Colombia Trade Pact

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer

President Bush said today he is sending a controversial Colombian free-trade agreement to Congress, telling skeptical Democrats that the pact is vital to national security and to the U.S. economy during tough financial times.

"Congress needs to move forward with the Colombia agreement, and they need to approve it as quickly as possible," Bush said.

Once he actually transmits the pact to the Hill, Bush's move will give Congress 90 legislative days to vote on the deal, which faces strong opposition from Democrats who argue that Colombia has not done enough to protect labor activists, quell violence and shut down paramilitary organizations.

The United States and Colombia completed an agreement in 2006, and then renegotiated terms last year under demands from Democrats to toughen labor and environmental standards. The House will have 60 days to hold an up-or-down vote on the proposals, followed by 30 days for the Senate to do the same.

The stalled Colombia agreement also 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, pollster Mark J. Penn, quit the campaign yesterday after meeting with Colombia's ambassador to the United States to discuss ways to promote the agreement. Penn attended the meeting as president of the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm.

The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), supports the agreement.

The trade agreement has slim chance of passage in Congress, especially as the two Democratic presidential candidates compete for labor backing while the economy continues to crumble under the weight of housing and credit meltdowns.

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

In remarks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building today before he sent the legislation to Capitol Hill, Bush emphasized the need to support Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and send a message to other countries in Latin America.

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

If the pact is not approved, Bush said, "it would send a signal throughout the region that America can't be counted on."

But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called the proposal "a continuation of failed policies" that "have already cost countless American workers their jobs and have done profound harm to U.S. foreign policy."

"Many Democrats continue to have serious concerns about an agreement that creates the highest level of economic integration with a country where workers and their families are routinely murdered and subjected to violence and intimidation for seeking to exercise their most basic economic rights," Reid said in a statement.

The administration says the Colombian agreement would open up that country's markets to many American products that are currently subject to stiff duties. Most Colombian goods already can be exported duty-free to the United States, but the proposed agreement would give the country an enhanced preference as well.

The pact would eliminate tariffs on goods traded between the two countries, which totaled about $18 billion in 2007. The United States is the top destination for Colombia's exports, which include coffee, fruit and clothing. The United States sends machinery, automobiles and other similar goods.