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President Bush, Congress Clash Over Colombia Trade Deal

April 7, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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President Bush announced Monday that he would send a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia to Congress for approval. While the White House urged swift action, Democrats raised concerns over anti-union violence in Colombia and the deal's impact on U.S. jobs. Lawmakers discuss the measure.
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KWAME HOLMAN: With a stroke of his pen, President Bush gave Congress until September to accept or reject a free trade agreement with the South American nation of Colombia. At a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the president praised the trade deal his administration negotiated more than a year ago, but which has languished in Congress.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The need for this agreement is too urgent, the stakes for our national security are too high to allow this year to end without a vote.

By statute, Congress has 90 legislative days to complete action once I transmit a bill implementing this agreement. Waiting any longer to send up the legislation would run the risk of Congress adjourning without the agreement ever getting voted on.

KWAME HOLMAN: The pact would bring down trade barriers between the U.S. and Colombia, a nation of 44 million people. Last year, the countries did about $18 billion in trade. The agreement would eliminate most duties Colombia places on goods from the U.S. Most Colombian goods sent to the U.S. already arrive duty-free.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think it makes sense for Americans’ goods and services to be treated just like Colombia’s goods and services are treated. So it’s time to level the playing field.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president also said the trade deal would help the U.S. counter the appeal in Latin American countries for the anti-trade, anti-American regime of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: By acting at this critical moment, we can show a watching world that America will honor its commitments, we can provide a powerful rebuke to dictators and demagogues in our backyard, we can expand U.S. exports and export-related jobs, we can show millions across the hemisphere that democracy and free enterprise lead to a better life.

KWAME HOLMAN: The trade agreement has stalled, largely due to objections from Democrats, who control Congress. They say Colombia has not done enough to curb anti-union violence there.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: We’re concerned about the violence against labor organizers, workers’ organizers in Colombia, and we want to see progress made in that direction.

KWAME HOLMAN: And within minutes of the president’s remarks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned in a statement Mr. Bush was hurting its chances by forcing a vote on the free trade agreement, or FTA.

Reid said: “By sending up the FTA before these concerns have been fully addressed, President Bush is significantly undercutting support for the FTA.”

Colombia has been engulfed in a drug-fueled civil war for more than two decades involving two opposing forces: left-wing guerrillas, known as the FARC, and right-wing paramilitaries. Drug profits have funded both groups.

The violence has included several high-profile kidnappings by the FARC in recent years. Just yesterday, Colombian troops freed a hostage who had been held for a month.

Dating back to the Clinton administration, the U.S. has sent billions to Colombia to fight drug growers and traffickers, making it the leading recipient of U.S. aid in the hemisphere.

Mr. Bush credited Colombian President Uribe with making progress against the violence.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: President Uribe has done everything asked of him. While Colombia still works to improve, the progress is undeniable, and it is worthy of our support.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president acted just as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign grabbed headlines related to the Colombia deal.

A senior strategist, Mark Penn, left the campaign yesterday after revelations he met with Colombian officials about the trade deal. Penn’s public relations firm had been hired by the Colombian government to push the agreement, even though candidate Clinton has said she opposed it.

Under trade authority provisions, Congress must vote up or down on the pact, without amending it.

Human rights in Colombia

Rep. Sander Levin
D-Mich.
What we need to do, as we have these permanent trade relations, is to get it right, to spread the benefits. That's good for the workers there, the businesses there, for our workers, and for our businesses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And two members of the House of Representatives join us now, Republican congressman Jim McCrery of Louisiana -- he is the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee -- he last traveled to Colombia in September 2007 -- and Democratic Congressman Sander Levin of Michigan. He is chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Congressman Levin, to you first.

President Bush says getting this agreement passed is, in his words, urgent for U.S. national security concerns. Is he right?

REP. SANDER LEVIN (D), Michigan: No, I don't think he's right.

I think the best answer to Chavez is democracy and democratic rights for everybody within Colombia, including the workers. We need to expand trade. We need to do it in the right way. And that means, as we expand trade, spread its benefits and include workers. And, in Colombia today, that isn't true. There's a suppression of worker rights.

Last year, 39 union workers were killed. There's been impunity from prosecution from -- from about everybody except 3 percent. The laws of Colombia do not reflect the basic ILO standards. What we need to do, as we have these permanent trade relations, is to get it right, to spread the benefits. That's good for the workers there, the businesses there, for our workers, and for our businesses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's take some of those points one at a time, Congressman McCrery, to you first.

This -- this criticism that worker rights are still being suppressed, that there's violence against the labor activists, trade unionists in Colombia.

REP. JIM MCCRERY (R), Louisiana: Well, I would make two points.

Number one, the level of violence against trade unionists has been reduced by over 70 percent since 2002. So, the number 39 that Representative Levin mentioned for last year is significantly lower than it was just five years ago.

So, there has been tremendous progress made in Colombia on that front. In fact, the murder rate for trade unionists in Colombia now is below the general murder rate in the country. And the general murder rate in the country is lower than the murder rate in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore.

Number two, the workers' rights that Representative Levin spoke about, that issue is contained in the bipartisan agreement that we entered into last year and that Speaker Pelosi announced last May. And the Colombian legislature has passed that agreement as part of the trade agreement.

So, they stand ready to bring their laws into compliance with the ILO standards, by virtue of having agreed to the bipartisan framework that we agreed to last year.

Progress in Colombia

Rep. Jim McCrery
R-La.
The Colombian legislature has agreed to change their laws to come into compliance with the workers' rights provisions that Sandy and I and Ambassador Schwab and others negotiated as part of our bipartisan framework last year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's take those points...

Let's take those points, Congressman Levin, one at a time, because, just for clarity, first, on this point that violence against the workers, as Congressman McCrery and President Bush pointed out today, has decreased considerably.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: It's worst in the world, 39 killed last year, union workers, 14 this year, and then the impunity issue, which we need to talk about.

Only a tiny percentage of the cases involving violence have been prosecuted effectively. Essentially, you have an atmosphere of suppression of worker rights. And that's really part of a larger trade issue. This isn't anti-Colombia. It's the efforts of Democrats to forge a new trade policy that spreads the benefits more widely.

Chavez is in -- in Venezuela in part because so many of the people got no benefits out of globalization. We want globalization to expand and to work for everybody, including the workers of Colombia and our workers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to bring in President Chavez of Venezuela in just a moment, but -- but let's get Congressman McCrery to respond on the points you made about worker rights being suppressed, as we just heard Congressman Levin say, in -- in Colombia.

REP. JIM MCCRERY: As I said, the Colombian legislature has agreed to change their laws to come into compliance with the workers' rights provisions that Sandy and I and Ambassador Schwab and others negotiated as part of our bipartisan framework last year. So, that is being taken care of.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: But, Judy -- but they haven't, though. They haven't done so.

REP. JIM MCCRERY: Well, but they have agreed to do that, Sandy.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: But let's wait until...

REP. JIM MCCRERY: That's the normal order of things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to let each of you finish your point, so we can hear what you're saying.

Congressman McCrery, finish, and then we will...

REP. JIM MCCRERY: OK. Thank you.

In terms of the effects of globalization, I agree with Sandy that our own laws here in the United States have not kept pace with the changes in the world markets and -- and the effects of globalization. I stand ready to work with the Republican and Democratic leadership and the White House to craft a new reauthorization for our Trade Adjustment Assistance program, expand that, and take into account not only the effects of trade directly, but the effects of globalization in general.

Protecting U.S. jobs

Rep. Jim McCrery
R-La.
The free trade agreement that the president is sending up tomorrow would level that playing field and give American workers the same rights to sell their products in Colombia that Colombian workers have to sell their products in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Levin, what about that, that Congressman McCrery, other Republicans, even some in your party, are saying that, if trade adjustment can be worked out, essentially, this is support for U.S. workers, who would -- any of those who would lose their jobs as a result of this? If that can be worked out, then they -- then they would be willing to put this together. And, if that is the case, why can't you and other Democrats support it?

REP. SANDER LEVIN: Well, two things about it.

We passed a bill in the House that expanded TAA, Trade Adjustment Assistance, and Mr. McCrery and virtually most Republicans -- not every Republican -- voted against it. That's point one. We tried and we tried. And we have had Republican opposition, including that of President Bush.

Number two, we need a new trade policy in this country. And that's what our two candidates have been talking about. And we're not going to trade one piece for another. We need an integrated trade policy that looks after the interests of our workers and businesses. And this Bush administration has failed to do that, not only in respect to pressuring Colombia to -- to make more progress, but in other respects also, China.

And other ways, we have had a lackadaisical Bush administration approach to trade policy. And that's why Colombia and worker rights are part of a new trade policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you, Congressman McCrery, about a poll that came out last week done for The New York Times and CBS. In essence, a majority were saying they're in favor of -- of trade. They said trade is good. But two-thirds said they favor trade restrictions to protect American industries that are hurt by trade.

What does that say to you about the -- the push to get legislation like this through?

REP. JIM MCCRERY: Well, it's incumbent on those of us who are promoting these trade agreements to educate the public as to the benefits of the trade agreements.

The one with Colombia is actually very simple. Right now, under our Andean trade preferences law, we grant goods and services coming into the United States from Colombia tariff-free treatment, duty-free treatment, whereas goods made here in the United States going to Colombia are faced with high tariffs, high duties, in order to get sold in the Colombian market.

The free trade agreement that -- that the president is sending up tomorrow would level that playing field and give American workers the same rights to sell their products in Colombia that Colombian workers have to sell their products in the United States. So, this really, from an economic standpoint, should be a no-brainer. It levels the playing field for our workers and our industries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Levin, you want to address that?

REP. SANDER LEVIN: I surely do.

We Democrats have been working to level the playing field. We have taken the lead to try to get this administration, for example, as to China, to get off its duff. There's been an 80 percent increase in the manufacturing trade deficit, three million jobs lost.

So, no one needs to preach Democrats about leveling -- leveling the playing field. What we need to do, as we level it, is to spread its benefits. And that includes worker rights. That's what this issue is all about. I want to move ahead with Colombia the day that workers no longer have their rights suppressed.

Only 1 percent of the workers of Colombia today, the estimate is, are covered by collective bargaining agreements. That's because of the atmosphere of violence. That's because of the atmosphere of impunity from prosecution.

Chavez watching from the sidelines

Rep. Sander Levin
D-Mich.
The best answer to Chavez -- and there needs to be one -- is democratic rights, including those for workers in Colombia and in the U.S. In Colombia today, the fact is, worker rights are suppressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, one other question for you, Congressman Levin, and then I want to get a response from Congressman McCrery.

And that is President Bush's statement today that, by going ahead with this agreement, it's, in his words, a powerful rebuke to dictators. And he clearly was referring to President Chavez of Venezuela.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: Should I take the first crack at that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: The best answer to Chavez -- and there needs to be one -- is democratic rights, including those for workers in Colombia and in the U.S.

In Colombia today, the fact is, worker rights are suppressed. And we need to spread the benefits of globalization, so everybody is included. That's the answer. I favor it. I have worked for trade agreements, but on the basis of sharing the benefits of trade.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman McCrery, a response?

REP. JIM MCCRERY: The geopolitical considerations here are enormous. If we thumb our nose, if the United States Congress thumbs the nose of the United States at Colombia by refusing to pass this trade agreement, we will embolden President Chavez and those like him who want to undermine democracy and free markets in Latin America.

Colombia has been one of our most steadfast allies in Latin America. And for us not to approve this would be a serious mistake from a geopolitical standpoint.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentleman, we're going to leave it there. And we thank both of you for talking with us...

REP. SANDER LEVIN: Thank you very much.

REP. JIM MCCRERY: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... Congressman Jim McCrery, Congressman Sander Levin, gentlemen.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: Thank you.