WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said Wednesday it will force Congress to vote on a Colombia free trade agreement this year, in effect launching a do-or-die effort to help the closest U.S. ally in Latin America and setting up a contentious debate smack in the middle of a presidential race.
President Bush cast the FTA in urgent national security terms, launching one of his harshest attacks ever on leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying Venezuela has "squandered its oil wealth in an effort to promote its hostile, anti-American vision.''
"For more than a year, my administration has worked with both parties in Congress to seek a path to bring (the Colombia) agreement up for approval,'' Bush told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "We continue to stand ready to negotiate a bipartisan way forward. But time is running out, and we must not allow delay to turn into inaction.''
"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,'' Bush said. "There needs to be a vote on Colombia this year.''
Officials said the plan is to send the FTA to Congress as soon as the first week of April to ensure a vote before Congress adjourns for the year on Sept. 26. Lawmakers have a maximum of 90 legislative days to pass or reject a free trade deal — no ammendments allowed — once the text is presented to Congress.
"That means that members of the Congress must be ready to move forward with the agreement when they return from the Easter recess,'' Bush said.
Forcing action on the Colombia trade deal is sure to set up a showdown with Congressional Democrats, who say Colombia must first show more progress on protecting labor leaders. Presidential hopefuls Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have vowed to renegotiate the free trade deal with Mexico and Canada known as NAFTA, in contrast to Republican Sen. John McCain, a strong backer of free trade.
Clinton reiterated her criticism Wednesday, though her statement did not mention Colombia. "In fact, 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,'' she said in a statement, "and to chart a new course on trade policy for the 21st Century that is genuinely pro-worker and pro-American.''
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi said forcing a vote would violate "established protocol.''
"Any deviation from this normal procedure for the Colombia FTA could prove to be counterproductive and would work against both countries' long-term interests,'' Pelosi said.
But Bush Administration officials said Congress needs to move.
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the administration has already agreed to bolster labor and environment provisions in the Colombia pact and had made more than 300 contacts with Democratic lawmakers. "Every time we act on something that is seen as a pre-requisite,'' she said, "we get another pre-requisite.''
Congress did approve a similar Peru free trade agreement at the end of last year but the Colombia pact has run into strong opposition from the AFL-CIO and human rights groups, which say too many killers of union activists have gone unpunished.
U.S. and Colombian officials say violence is down dramatically under conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who last week was locked in a furious showdown with Venezuela and Ecuador over a military raid into Ecuador that killed a top Colombian guerrilla leader.
Officials said the administration believes it can garner the 218 votes needed to pass the Colombia trade deal in the House, as many lawmakers have indicated they would only decide their vote when it became imminent. Trade pacts usually have an easier time passing in the Senate.
The administration has taken dozens of lawmakers to visit Colombia in an effort to showcase economic and political advances there. They also argue that Colombia already enjoys U.S. trade preferences that allows it to export duty-free to the United States while U.S. products pay high tariffs to enter Colombia.
There has been some talk that Pelosi could block the Colombia trade deal by passing a rule that overrides the so-called trade promotion authority that forces a yes-no vote on free trade agreement.
Schwab said doing this would go against an understanding between the executive and legislative branches going back decades. Her words appeared to presage the bitter debate that lay ahead.
"It would be the ultimate betrayal of trust,'' she said.