WASHINGTON — Setting up an election-year showdown with Democrats, President Bush on Monday sent Congress a controversial free-trade pact with Colombia, forcing an up-or-down vote within 90 legislative days.
The move came in an already combustible political environment regarding free trade, with a top campaign official of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who opposes the trade deal, resigning after it was revealed that he'd met with Colombian diplomats to explore ways to promote the agreement.
It wasn't known Monday whether Mark Penn's departure Sunday as chief Clinton strategist was connected to Bush's decision to send the Colombia trade pact to the Congress.
But with most Democratic lawmakers, as well as presidential candidates Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, opposing the deal, Bush took a high-stakes gamble that could be one of his last major initiatives to go before Congress.
Bush cast the deal as a winner for the U.S. economy and necessary to promote U.S. national interests in the hemisphere, where Colombia faces a "hostile and anti-American regime" in Venezuela, which is ruled by populist President Hugo Chavez.
U.S. organized labor and some groups in Colombia have argued against the agreement, saying too many murders of union activists go unpunished in the country. On Monday, the human rights group Human Rights Watch called for the measure's defeat, saying Colombia has the "highest rate of killngs of trade unionists in the world."
The group said that more than 2,500 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia since 1985, more than 400 of those since Colombian President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002. Only 68 cases have resulted in convictions since 1985, Human Rights Watch said.
Bush, however, defended Uribe's record, saying the Colombian president was working to stop attacks on union members and had succeeded in making the country more secure as it battled guerrilla groups.
"By acting at this critical moment, we can show a watching world that America will honor its commitments," Bush said. "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."
U.S. and Colombian officials don't have a certain head count on the vote. Rep. Wally Herger, a senior California Republican on the crucial House Ways and Means Committee, said the pact has overwhelming Republican backing, and he said he was hopeful that advocates could get enough Democrats to support it.
Most tariffs on U.S. exports would be cut to zero after the agreement goes into effect. Colombia, South America's second most-populous nation, already enjoys duty-free access to the U.S. market, thanks to a special arrangement that's renewed periodically.
The controversial nature of the Colombia deal was underscored by Penn's resignation as Clinton's chief strategist. Penn, in his capacity as CEO and president of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, met last week with Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco to explore ways to promote the free-trade agreement.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., criticized Bush's decision to push the Colombia pact.
"By sending up the Colombia FTA (free-trade agreement) legislation under circumstances that maximize the chances it will fail, he will be adding one more mistake to his legacy and one more mess for the next president to clean up," Reid said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said that "under present circumstances, we cannot support" the agreement.
The Colombian trade deal also has divided Latin America among nations that embrace free trade with the United States — including Mexico, Peru, Chile and most of Central America — with those like Venezuela that say free trade produces more poverty.
"The most important geopolitical mistake the United States could do today is not ratifying that treaty," Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, said at an event Friday.
Bush administration officials left open the possibility of a negotiated settlement to avoid a photo-finish vote that accompanies contentious trade deals. In his remarks Monday, Bush hinted he was open to dialogue on legislation that would provide more generous assistance to workers hurt by free trade, as Democrats want.
In May 2007, the Bush administration and the Democratic congressional leadership struck a deal to include more labor and environmental provisions in trade texts. That cleared the way to pass a pact with Peru. But Democrats argued that Colombia needed to do more on human rights.
Business groups rallied Monday in support of the Colombian pact. Tom Donohue, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said a rejection "will do nothing to provide opportunities to working Americans on factory floors or Colombians rescuing their nation from drug violence."
Experts on trade say free-trade pacts like the Colombia deal have increasingly become political bogeymen.
Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, said there's nothing wrong with the Colombia Free Trade Agreement other than its timing.
"In the hurly-burly of a nominating fight, some of the nuances get crushed and trade agreements become convenient scapegoats," Marshall said. "There's no question that trade pacts have become symbols of unbalanced globalization. What's missing, though, is our domestic agenda doesn't seek to equip workers to run in the global competition. We have to replace the old industrial-era safety net."
James Roberts, an international trade analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, called trade pacts "political footballs."
"It's actually an excellent deal," Roberts said of the Colombia agreement. "People on the left want to deny President Bush a legacy victory. These trade agreements are a hard sell anytime, but even more so because of the current economic conditions in the U.S."
(William Douglas contributed.)