Congress

Democrats to slow Colombia free-trade vote

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday that she'll use a rare procedural option to block fast-track consideration of the Colombia free-trade agreement, a draconian step that counters President Bush's push to get Congress to vote on the controversial deal this year.

Pelosi said she'll present to the House of Representatives floor a rule change eliminating the limit of 90 legislative days to pass or reject the Colombia free-trade agreement, just two days after Bush dispatched the text to Congress.

"The president took his action," Pelosi told reporters. "I will take mine tomorrow."

The move is a rebuff to Bush, who argued that Colombia already enjoyed one-way trade concessions and was a critical ally in South America, and to Colombia's popular conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who made the agreement one of the centerpieces of his foreign policy.

It also adds more octane to the fiery debate on free trade, which has seen both Democratic presidential candidates flatly rejecting the Colombia agreement.

The administration quickly rolled out six Cabinet secretaries for a White House press briefing to reiterate the urgency of the Colombia vote. U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the "procedural maneuvering'' was "unprecedented and unfair.'' She noted that the deal had been signed in November 2006 and that congressional leadership refused to take it up, despite concessions from the administration to address Democratic concerns over labor and the environment.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Colombia under Uribe had come back from being a near-failed state, amid rampant activity from illegal armed groups and drug trafficking.

''What will it say if the United States turns its back now on Colombia?'' she asked.

Both sides in the Colombia fight accused the other of breaking protocols. The White House said it repeatedly consulted congressional leaders to ensure passage of the Colombia pact but got no response, while Democrats said the administration first must agree to more generous assistance for U.S. workers affected by free trade and have reservations about human rights abuses in Colombia.

Designed to preserve the executive branch's ability to negotiate trade deals, the Trade Promotion Authority — or fast track — allows the president to negotiate a free-trade agreement and then present it to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

However, over the past three decades, presidents have coordinated with Congress before presenting a contentious trade bill. With Democrats souring on trade, Colombia proved too controversial for consideration in an election year.

"This has been unfortunately the perfect storm of an unfortunate situation for Colombia," said Jerry Haar, with the College of Business Administration at Florida International University. "Democrats are emboldened; this is their year; they're courting the union vote ... and this is one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history, and why hand a victory to the nemesis of the Democratic Party?"

Pelosi seemed aware of the impact her decision would have on Colombia.

"We're first and foremost here to look out for the concerns of America's working families," she said. "I do take this action with deep respect for the people of Colombia, and hope that — and will be sure that any message they receive is one of respect for their country and the importance of the friendship between our two countries."

Republican House Whip Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri said the decision was a disappointment and "would hurt the United States' ability to negotiate any trade agreement in the future. It creates real doubt as to whether our nation is truly committed to negotiating in good faith with our allies around the world."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who usually supports free trade, blamed Bush for the impasse but hoped cooler heads would prevail.

"I'm concerned that the president's hasty action will not only throw the Colombia deal off track, but may make the larger trade debate a lot more contentious," he said. "Congress and the White House are going to need to take a step back from the brink, focus on renewing an agreement on trade adjustment assistance for American workers and then consider the Colombia deal on its merits."

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