WASHINGTON - A drive by President Bush to win passage of a modest trade deal with Colombia erupted yesterday into an angry partisan confrontation between the White House and House Democrats, with both sides using trade as a surrogate for an election-year battle over jobs, national security, and the sinking economy.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, appeared to stun the White House when she announced plans yesterday to block a vote on the Colombia deal, which would lower tariffs in both countries.
The move effectively holds the measure hostage until Bush agrees to more economic relief for Americans.
Pelosi's action, which scrapped House rules in effect since 1994, stunned the White House only two days after Bush attempted to gain the upper hand by sending the Colombia bill to Congress with the understanding that a vote would be required this year. Under a previous House interpretation of the law, it would have 90 days to vote on such a trade deal.
At stake for the Bush administration and Republicans is a deal that the business community has pushed for and that would provide support for a crucial American ally. Democrats, meanwhile, feel caught between organized labor, which wants Colombia to do more to stop killings of union leaders, and Wall Street, an important source of political funding.
Hastily assembling at the White House, a team of Cabinet members led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. assailed Pelosi's move as damaging ties to Colombia, encouraging anti-American forces in the region and jeopardizing the economy.
In the background was a rich brew of presidential politics. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumed Republican nominee, supports the deal. But the Democrats, Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of new York, oppose it. A top aide to Clinton, Mark Penn, resigned recently after it was revealed that he advised Colombia on ways to promote the deal.
Pelosi and other Democrats said that they had earlier beseeched the White House not to submit the Colombia deal, which involves only a small portion of US trade, without doing more to help homeowners and the unemployed as the economy sinks.
"We're first and foremost here to look out for the concerns of America's working families," Pelosi said, adding that she understood the importance of relations with Colombia, a country that has for years tapped American aid to battle narcotics traffickers and leftist insurgents.
"I do take this action with deep respect for the people of Colombia and hope and will be sure that any message they receive is one of respect for their country," she said.
But Rice said at the White House that the trade deal was vital to American security interests.
Colombia, she said, has been a crucial ally and had come back "from the brink of being a failed state" and needed help to stand up to "very hostile anti-American states and forces in Latin America."
As is customary for US officials, Rice did not elaborate on which states she was referring to, but the administration is locked in a tense battle for influence in Latin America with the fiery president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez.
"What will it say if the United States turns its back now on Colombia?" she asked.
At the heart of the row this week was what Democrats say is an ambivalent attitude among many of them toward trade, despite the fact that organized labor, many environmental groups, and many Democratic voters in states with aging industrial bases are unalterably opposed.