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President Bush, Congress Clash Over Colombia Trade Deal

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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    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


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


    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.