WASHINGTON — As President Bush tries to push a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement through Congress, he has an unusual ally: Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Despite compiling a protectionist voting record during his 13 years in the House and Senate, Graham backs the U.S.-Colombia deal Bush sent to Congress on Monday.
The Seneca Republican's main reason for backing the accord has little to do with trade: He views Colombia as a key ally in South America that will stand up to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other anti-U.S. leaders in the region.
"Battle lines are being formed in Latin America," Graham said Friday in an interview. "We need to look for ways to marginalize Chavez and reward our allies."
Graham, who is up for election to his second Senate term in November, criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her decision Thursday to delay House of Representatives consideration of the U.S.-Colombia agreement.
Pelosi said Bush had failed to consult enough with her and other Democratic congressional leaders about the trade deal.
Senior Bush aides said they've met with lawmakers for months and escorted dozens on visits to Colombia, including a November trip that Graham joined.
The flamboyant Chavez, who calls Bush "the devil," allows Colombian guerrilla forces to operate in his neighboring Venezuela. He has fanned anti-American sentiment in Ecuador and Bolivia while forging close oil ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed reporters on the Colombia trade deal Wednesday in a rare public relations show-of-force with six Bush Cabinet members.
"From the perspective of American foreign policy and American interests, there is perhaps no more important free trade agreement in recent memory," Rice said.
Rice and other top Bush aides said Colombia in recent years has cracked down on drug cartels and paramilitary forces while moving toward democratic rule.
Opponents of the deal say the Bogota government is still rife with corruption.
"Colombia is probably the worst human rights violator in Latin America," said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank. "It's a nation where labor leaders and democratic political activists are murdered with impunity."
As with other high-profile issues, presidential politics is influencing the trade fight in Congress.
GOP aides say Democrats don't want to force Sens. Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, one of whom will be the party's White House nominee, to vote on an accord that most U.S. labor unions oppose.
"The Democrats have chosen union bosses over the American people by embracing a protectionist agenda that will stifle job growth and hurt our economy," said Sen. Jim DeMint, a Greenville Republican.
Ironically for Graham, the U.S.-Colombia deal was negotiated under "fast track" trade authority Congress granted Bush in 2002 -- but which he opposed.
Under such authority, first granted to Richard Nixon in 1974, Congress cedes to the White House some of its constitutional power to regulate commerce, enabling presidents to negotiate trade deals expeditiously.
The proposed agreement would require Colombia to reduce or remove tariffs that cost American companies millions of dollars a year. The United States taxes Colombian goods at much lower rates.
"It's time to level the playing field," Bush said Monday.
Colombia falls far down the list of U.S. trade partners, with the two countries exchanging about $16 billion a year in goods. The trade deficit is $2 billion in Colombia's favor.
But reflecting the larger geopolitical importance Bush has placed on Colombia, it is the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind only Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Egypt.
Graham, who also voted against giving President Clinton fast-track power in 1998, acknowledged that it is difficult for him to back trade deals.
"Global economists bring forward complex technical analyses and reams of mind-numbing statistics to back up their claims that free trade helps lift all boats," he said.
"But I know from real-world experience that while some boats do rise, others sink," Graham said.
Many South Carolinians, he said, have suffered from economic globalization.
"Textile mills and manufacturing facilities have closed their doors because of unfair foreign competition," Graham said.
In backing the U.S.-Colombia accord, Graham is breaking with Roger Milliken, the textiles titan whose Spartanburg-based firm has been among his most generous supporters, giving him a total of $53,765 in campaign donations.
"This trade deal is a perpetuation of the failed NAFTA model," said Jock Nash, who runs Milliken's lobbying shop in Washington. "It encourages investors and companies to leave this country and set up manufacturing operations abroad."
The United States is running a cumulative $70 billion annual trade deficit with Mexico, Canada and other nations with which it has struck trade accords, Nash said.
Graham says he judges each trade agreement on its own merits, but he has opposed most deals over the last decade while serving in the House and Senate.
Graham supported trade accords with Peru, Oman, Australia and Africa. He voted against agreements with Central American nations and the Dominican Republican, Morocco, Chile, Singapore, Burma, Vietnam and other countries.
From the time he voted against extending "preferred nation" trading status to China in 1998, Graham has been among the leading congressional critics of economic ties between Washington and Beijing.
"His voting record has been quite a bit less friendly to trade than the typical Republican in Congress," said Daniel Griswold, an analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.