April 10, 2008

House Democrats defeat Colombia free-trade deal

by Pablo Bachelet

A free-trade agreement with Colombia got swept away by Democratic presidential politics and concerns over domestic economic woes, with the House of Representatives handing the Bush administration a stinging defeat Thursday on a deal that had been touted as crucial to U.S. interests.

The 224-195 vote throws the Colombia free-trade agreement into uncertainty, with only a faint hope that the deal could be voted on after the presidential election in November and before the new president takes over in January.

The White House had cast a free-trade deal with Colombia as necessary to support a stalwart U.S. ally in Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. The administration also pushed the pact as an opportunity to provide more export-based jobs by opening South America's second-most populous market to more U.S. goods and services.

In a gloomy statement after the vote, President Bush called the action "unprecedented and unfortunate" and "damaging to our economy, our national security and our relations with an important ally."

He said the House had sent a "damaging message to the world that Congress cannot be counted on to keep its promises."

Democrats said that they were looking for the House to recover its standing as the gatekeeper of trade deals and that the administration had long ignored Democratic demands to provide more assistance to U.S. workers affected by free trade.

Bush denied that the White House had ignored the Democrats.

"During the 16 months since the Colombia free-trade agreement was signed," Bush said, "my administration has gone above and beyond any reasonable effort to achieve a bipartisan path for considering this agreement. At the expense of our economy and our national security, the House has instead chosen to take a shortsighted and partisan path."

Bush attempted to use a "fast-track" provision that would have forced Congress to vote on the agreement within 90 legislative days.

But the move backfired after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved to strip the provision, an unprecedented action in the 34 years that fast track has existed.

The vote underscored a popular mood that has soured on trade, with Democratic candidates coming under pressure from the party base and organized labor to reject all free-trade deals.

In the House debate, Democrats honed in more on U.S. economic difficulties and less on previous concerns of the deaths of union members in Colombia. Pelosi noted that Colombia could be taken up at a later time.

"This isn't about ending anything," said Pelosi. "It's about having a timetable that respects the concerns, the aspirations, the challenges faced by the American people. We are the people's House; their timetable should be our timetable."

Pelosi said the vote should not be "misconstrued" as a vote against Colombia. She said she had respect for the leadership of Uribe, who has tirelessly lobbied for the agreement.

Colombian officials argued the agreement would attract more foreign investment by making its access to the U.S. market permanent. A study last year by two Colombian universities concluded that a failure to approve the pact could cost Colombia — which is long locked in a deadly conflict with armed groups and drug traffickers — 460,000 jobs.

Republican lawmakers echoed the administration's position, with California Rep. David Dreier calling the Pelosi initiative the "Hugo Chavez rule," in a reference to the Venezuelan leader and U.S. foe.

Republicans also argued that the United States had lost negotiating credibility on trade pacts and that the agreement didn't cost U.S. jobs because Colombia already exported duty-free to the United States, while U.S. products faced tariffs to enter Colombia. The agreement would have made Colombia's access permanent and extend other protections to U.S. investors.

They suggested that Democrats were holding up the Colombian deal to get other, unrelated concessions, such as extending to service workers a government program for U.S. manufacturing workers displaced by foreign competition, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance.

"This action today," said House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, "is nothing short of political blackmail."

Only 10 Democrats joined 185 Republicans in opposing the move.

Other Democrats said the vote was broader than Colombia.

"What we're really talking about," said Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., "is the effects of globalization on the American economy."


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