STEVEN R. WEISMAN
The New York Times
P March 13, 2008
WASHINGTON — 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.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, warned Mr. Bush on Wednesday not to submit the Colombia deal without a trade adjustment package or signs of further progress in cracking down on violence against labor organizers in Colombia.
“The Colombia agreement is controversial on its merits,” Ms. Pelosi said. “Forcing the agreement on Congress, without the consent of the leadership, will only make it more so.”
Administration officials say that if the Colombia deal is to be passed this year, they cannot afford to wait for a consensus before submitting it. They hope that actually submitting the deal and starting the 90-day clock will compel both sides to reach an agreement.
“We’re telling the Democrats that we’re still going to work with you, but if you back us up against the wall, we have no choice but to submit the agreement to Congress,” said an administration official, speaking anonymously in order to discuss tactics candidly.
Trade has become a hot issue in the presidential campaigns, with Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, attacking Senators Obama and Clinton for their skepticism about, and outright opposition to, current and future trade deals.
Both Democrats have called for a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, approved in the 1990s with the support of President Clinton. Mr. Bush offered a jibe at the Democrats, warning that any such renegotiation would bring new demands on the United States that could shut down trade.
Mr. Bush specifically criticized Senator Clinton, though not by name, for calling for a “timeout” on future trade accords.
“You know, they toss out the word ‘timeout’ from trade,” he said. “It’s got this kind of catchy little title to it.” But he said a pause would lead to “a timeout from growth, a timeout from jobs and a timeout from good results.”