Colombia Trade Deal Sparks Partisan Brawl on Hill

A modest free trade deal with Colombia has turned into a partisan brawl on Capitol Hill after the president provocatively sent the proposal to Congress with a 90-day deadline. The Democratic-led House voted to remove the timetable, which would have forced a potentially unpopular election-year vote.

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A modest free trade plan led to a partisan brawl today in the House of Representatives, this after President Bush drew a line in the sand. He sent Congress a free trade agreement with Colombia under fast track rules, giving lawmakers 90 days to act. The House responded with a rare move: It voted to eliminate the timetable altogether. That means Democrats won't have to take it potentially unpopular vote before the fall elections.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports from Capitol Hill.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The fight is less about what the trade deal with Colombia will do and more about how it got here. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had warned President Bush not to send the measure to Congress because it would fail, but he ignored her advice.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; House Speaker): By his actions on Tuesday, the president abandoned the traditions of consultation that had governed past agreements. In fact, the action the House takes today is more in keeping with the spirit of the rules than the White House's move to force a vote.

ELLIOTT: Democrats say Colombia hasn't done enough to protect labor unionists and curb violence, and they called on Congress and the president to do more to help U.S. workers before taking up the free trade agreement. Massachusetts Congressman James McGovern questioned the administration's priorities.

Representative JAMES McGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts): People are losing their jobs. Fuel prices are at the record high. Food prices have dramatically increased. Confidence in the economy is in an all-time low. Now, maybe this is a radical idea, Mr. Speaker, but shouldn't the energy, passion and focus of the administration be on fixing these problems? This administration has turned a cold shoulder to the plight of American workers.

ELLIOTT: Republicans countered that the agreement would help American workers because it would remove tariffs on U.S. products going to Colombia. Colombian exports already enter the U.S. duty-free.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): This action today is nothing short of political blackmail.

ELLIOTT: House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Rep. BOEHNER: This is a precipitous step in the wrong direction. We're sending the very bad message for our partners around the world all in the name of electioneer politics.

ELLIOTT: Both Democratic presidential candidates have spoken against trade deals, and Senator Hillary Clinton demoted a top adviser earlier this week after he lobbied on behalf of the Colombian government on the free trade agreement. Key Democratic constituencies, including organized labor and human rights groups, generally opposed the Colombia deal, while traditional business groups such as the U.S Chamber of Commerce have lobbied for it.

President Bush has work to carve out of legacy on trade. His allies in the House today were outraged by the Democratic maneuver around fast track status. They promptly dubbed at the Hugo Chavez rule. California Republican David Dreier argued that snubbing a South American ally will only strengthen the leftist president of Venezuela.

Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): The U.S.-Columbia free trade agreement would deliver a significant blow to Chavez' authoritarian desires for the region and the (unintelligible) terrorist agenda.

ELLIOTT: Miami's Lincoln Diaz-Balart said the House vote was an insult to Colombia.

Representative LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (Republican, Florida): What the Democratic leadership of this House is telling the democratically elected government of Colombia today is we don't care. We don't care. The trade rules apply to the world but not to you.

ELLIOTT: President Bush said today's action by the House sends a damaging message to the world that Congress cannot be counted on to keep its promises.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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