President Bush on Monday sent Congress a controversial free trade agreement with Colombia — a move that will force lawmakers to vote within 90 legislative days on the pact, which is heavily opposed by Democrats.
Democrats contend that Colombia has not done enough to halt violence, protect labor activists and demobilize paramilitary organizations. The president disagrees, saying Colombia has addressed the issues.
"People throughout the hemisphere are watching to see what the United States will do," Bush said. "If Congress fails to approve this agreement, it would not only abandon a brave ally; it would send a signal throughout the region that America cannot be counted on to support its friends."
The letter Bush signed in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building transmitted legislation implementing the trade pact to Congress. Lawmakers won't formally receive it until they return on Tuesday.
Bush's action will force Congress to take up the proposal under a fast-track process that will require votes within 90 legislative days, which counts the days that Congress is in session. Officials said Bush is acting now in order to force a vote before Congress leaves in the fall for the campaign season.
Democrats and labor unions strongly criticized Bush's move, the first time a president has used the so-called fast track authority to force a congressional vote over the objections of the party controlling Congress.
"The president's decision to act unilaterally in sending the free trade agreement disregards three decades of established precedent under fast-track legislation and demonstrates yet again his disrespect for Congress," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Bruce Raynor, head of Unite Now, a 465,000-member union representing workers in the apparel and textile industries, said it was an outrage for Bush, during a time of economic crisis, to send Congress a trade agreement "with a country that has one of the most ruthless records of repression of the trade union movement."
Business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, applauded Bush's move and said they would work to get the Colombia deal through Congress.
Free trade legacy
The president, who has staked out free trade as one of his top legacies, is also hoping to win congressional approval before he leaves office on pending free trade agreements with Panama and South Korea.
During the 16 months since the president signed the trade agreement, the Bush administration has led trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress and has held more than 400 consultations, meetings and calls to push for its approval.
Bush's action came one day after Mark Penn quit as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief campaign strategist after it was reported that he had met with Colombia's ambassador to the United States to discuss the free trade agreement, which Clinton opposes. Presidential spokesman Tony Fratto said he was not aware of any contact between the White House and Penn on the Colombian trade deal.
In economic terms, the deal would largely open up the Colombian markets for American goods without many of the duties that now exist. Colombia is already able to send most products to the United States duty-free, but the deal would strengthen that preferential access, a boon to the country and to its investors.
Today, nearly all of Colombia's exports enter the United States duty-free, while American products exported to Colombia face tariffs of up to 35 percent for nonagricultural goods, and higher tariffs for many agricultural products, Bush said. He said that the trade agreement would eliminate tariffs on more than 80 percent of U.S. exports of industrial and consumer goods.
Failure to approve a free-trade deal with Colombia would encourage Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's anti-American regime and cast the United States as untrustworthy and impotent across South America, Bush said.
He said the deal with Colombia, a strong U.S. ally in the Western Hemisphere, is important for national security reasons. He praised President Alvaro Uribe as committed to democratic values and he noted that since 2002, Colombia has reported declines in kidnappings, terrorist attacks, murders and violence against union members.
Bush said Uribe has addressed violence by demobilizing tens of thousands of paramilitary figures and fighters, addressed attacks on trade unionists by stepping up funding for prosecutions, has established an independent prosecutors unit and created a special program that protects labor activists.
He said Colombia also faces a hostile, anti-American regime in Venezuela, which has met with FARC terrorist leaders and deployed troops to the Colombian border as a means of intimidating the Colombian government and its people.