march 13, 2008
WASHINGTON -- President Bush warned Congress on Wednesday that failing to approve a trade deal with Colombia would fuel the anti-American regime of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and cast the United States as untrustworthy and impotent across South America.
The intensity of Bush's rhetoric reflected the importance of the deal to him _ and the fact that he's fast running out of time to get it done. Democrats have objected that Colombia's government has not done enough to halt violence, protect labor activists and demobilize paramilitary organizations.
"If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, we would validate antagonists in Latin America, who would say that America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends," Bush said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"We would cripple our influence in the region, and make other nations less likely to cooperate with us in the future," the president said. "We would betray one of our closest friends in our own backyard."
Bush said he expects there to be a vote on the free trade agreement this year; the White House is expected to send it to Congress shortly after lawmakers return from an Easter recess, which by tradition starts a 90-day timetable for final votes. But Bush and Congress have not agreed on how that will happen.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Bush should not send the bill to Capitol Hill without the typical consent from congressional leadership.
Any change from that process, she said, "could prove to be counterproductive and would work against both countries' long-term interests."
But Bush and his trade and national security aides said Wednesday they don't know what more they can do.
On top of months of negotiations, Bush's government has taken lawmakers on trips to Colombia to meet personally with President Alvaro Uribe. Bush said Uribe has improved labor and environmental standards, demobilized tens of thousands of paramilitary fighters and reduced violence.
"Ladies and gentlemen, if this isn't enough to earn America's support, then what is?" Bush said.
Bush has little leverage or opportunity to push through what's left of his domestic agenda. In his final year, the Colombia trade deal is a huge priority for Bush, as are other pending deals with Panama and South Korea.
Trying to build pressure on lawmakers, Bush warned that opposing help for Colombia could embolden Chavez. He never named his nemesis, who once stood before the United Nations General Assembly and called Bush "the devil." But he accused Chavez's regime of destabilizing, provocative behavior.
"In truth, its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power," Bush said. "It has squandered its oil wealth in an effort to promote its hostile, anti-American vision. And it has left its own citizens to face food shortages while it threatens its neighbors."
In economic terms, the deal would largely open up the Colombian markets for American goods without many of the duties that now exist. Colombia is already able to send most products to the United States duty-free, but the deal would cement that preferential access, a boon to the country and to its investors.
Bush acknowledged that the slumping U.S. economy has eroded support for trade. Many blue-collar workers blame it for costing them their jobs. The president said the answer is trade assistance and education, not isolation.
During all this, Bush also managed to insert a political jab at the two Democrats vying to replace him in the White House.
"There are a lot of special interest groups that are willing to spend a lot of money to make somebody's life miserable when it comes to supporting free trade agreements," Bush said. "But I believe leadership requires people rising above this empty, hollow political rhetoric. If you're committed to multilateral diplomacy, you cannot support unilateral withdrawal from trade agreements."
Both Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement to persuade Canada and Mexico to negotiate more protections for workers and the environment in the agreement.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush was not directly addressing Clinton and Obama.
But the president made a point of mocking those who have called for a "timeout from trade."
It was Clinton who used almost that exact phrase _ a "trade timeout" _ in describing her plan to alter NAFTA.
Clinton responded on Wednesday: "The reason we so desperately need to take a timeout from new trade agreements is to put a stop to the Bush administration's reckless and destructive trade policies, and to chart a new course on trade policy ... that is genuinely pro-worker."