Bush still pushing Colombia trade pact
Says deal is 'dead' unless House acts
WASHINGTON - President Bush stepped up pressure yesterday on Congress to approve a controversial free-trade pact with Colombia, saying the deal is "dead" unless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi schedules a vote.
After a meeting with his Cabinet, Bush said it's not in America's interest to "stiff an ally" like Colombia.
Bush sent the agreement to Capitol Hill earlier this month, but the House, led by Democrats, decided to eliminate a rule forcing a vote on the deal within 60 legislative days. The House's decision probably kills consideration of the Colombia agreement this year, leaving it for the next administration.
"This free trade agreement is in our national interests," Bush said. "Yet that bill is dead unless the speaker schedules a definite vote. This was an unprecedented move. It's not in our country's interests that we stiff an ally like Colombia and that we don't encourage our goods and services to be sold overseas."
Pelosi, Democrat of California, who initiated the rule change, blames Bush for submitting the agreement before a consensus was reached with congressional leaders on outstanding differences. She has said that whether the agreement is dead for the year depends on the good faith of negotiations between Democrats and the White House.
Bush has staked out free trade as one of his chief economic legacies, winning a bruising battle to implement the Central American Free Trade Agreement with six Latin American countries, as well as a number of individual pacts. While two other agreements with Panama and South Korea are also pending, analysts said the Colombia agreement is likely to be the last one that has any chance of winning approval in Bush's last year in office.
The administration insisted the deal would be good for the United States economically because it would eliminate high barriers that US exports to Colombia now face, while most Colombian products are already entering the United States duty-free under trade preference laws.
Trade also is shaping up as a key issue in the presidential campaign and in the fight for control of Congress.
The administration charged that Democrats were forsaking a key South American ally, while Democrats said Colombia needed to do more to halt the violence against union organizers before the pact could be considered.
In explaining their opposition, Democrats have cited the continued violence against organized labor in Colombia and differences with the administration over how to extend a program that helps US workers displaced by foreign competition.
White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters later that unless Pelosi schedules a vote, she will be accused of killing the deal. Perino said that she was not aware of any conversations between Bush and Pelosi since last week, but that presidential advisers are working with lawmakers.
"The president believes she [Pelosi] made a choice to kill the Colombia free trade agreement, and that if, and until, she schedules a vote on the Colombia free trade agreement, she has, in effect, killed it," Perino said.
Perino would not speculate about the prospects of getting such a vote.
Bush also talked with Cabinet members about the US economy and urged lawmakers to make his tax cuts permanent. Noting that income taxes are due today, Bush said the economic stimulus package will allow some tax payments to be returned to taxpayers.
"The second week of May, checks and/or credits to your account will start coming to you," Bush said. "And that's going to be an important part of making sure this economy begins to recover in a way that will add confidence and hope."
"One way Congress can act is to make the tax cuts permanent. If they really are that concerned about economic uncertainty, they ought to create certainty in the tax code."
He said his administration has set up programs to help more homeowners stay in their homes, but that Congress needs to modernize the Federal Housing Administration and implement other changes that will encourage the housing market to turn around.