WASHINGTON – Facing what are widely seen as long odds, President Bush on Monday began the contentious process of trying to win congressional approval of a free trade agreement with Colombia that critics, including many in the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, say does not do enough to protect workers here or in that South American nation.
The Bush administration argues that the measure would benefit Americans by opening a large market to U.S. goods and would reward a Latin American ally striving to overcome political instability and shut down its narcotics trade.
Critics charge that although there has been progress since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia has not done enough to stem attacks on labor leaders or protect human rights.
Bush is facing a powerful challenge in seeking House and Senate approval as legislators prepare to go before voters concerned that foreign competition could threaten jobs.
The outcome is made all the more difficult by Bush’s sagging popularity, the opposition to the agreement by the two Democratic presidential contenders and growing concerns about the U.S. economy.
All of which brings up this question: Why is he taking the step now, risking angering – or at least embarrassing – Colombia with a defeat and dooming the 16-month-old pact’s approval?
Because, say administration officials and experts on Latin America outside the administration, waiting would accomplish nothing and the clock is running out on his opportunities.
Under the protocol for considering the agreement, negotiated under provisions that give Congress a yes-or-no vote and no opportunity to amend the pact, the House has 60 legislative working days – the days in which it is in session – to vote on it. The Senate then has 30 working days.
Bush signed a letter Monday sending the measure to Congress.
“Waiting any longer to send up the legislation would run the risk of Congress adjourning without the agreement ever getting voted on,” Bush said.
Colombia, with 44 million residents, is the second most populous nation in South America after Brazil. “That’s a great potential market for U.S. exports,” said Susan Schwab, the U.S. trade representative.
While most Colombian products enter the U.S. duty-free under a previous agreement, the new pact would allow 80 percent of U.S. goods sold in Colombia to enter the country without tariffs that, Schwab said, can reach 35 percent on industrial and consumer goods and 80 percent on agricultural products.
In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Bush was disregarding Americans’ “economic insecurity” and they could not support the pact.
The administration has indicated that it is prepared to address a key concern of critics, expressing a readiness to talk about Democrats’ proposals for revising a government program that retrains workers who have lost jobs because of competition with foreign labor boosted by lowered U.S. barriers to their products.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, a founder of the House Trade Working Group, said Bush was “turning a blind eye toward the egregious human-rights violations in Colombia.”