WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday signed a letter sending a Colombian free-trade pact to Congress, which puts a 90-day deadline for a vote on the legislation.
The deal is one the administration sees as a crucial piece of its foreign policy before Bush leaves office next year. It comes one day after a top strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton was forced to step down from his post after meeting with Colombian officials over the deal, which Clinton opposes.
"This agreement will advance America's national security interests in a critical region," Bush said. "It will strengthen a courageous ally in our hemisphere. It will help America's economy and America's workers at a vital time
"It deserves bipartisan support from the United States Congress."
Speaking to reporters gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, Bush said "Congress needs to move forward with the Colombian agreement, and they need to approve it as quickly as possible."
Surrounded by cabinet members, Bush signed the letter after delivering his remarks. "I look forward to signing a good, bipartisan piece of legislation," Bush said.
The Bush administration says the U.S-Colombian Free Trade Agreement would decrease Colombian import taxes on American goods, boosting U.S. exports to the Andean country while bolstering the country's government in an area that leans increasingly against U.S. foreign policy.
The legislation is expected to face fierce opposition from Democratic lawmakers. Both Democratic presidential candidates oppose the deal, and they are joined by a phalanx of fellow Democrats who are wary of international trade deals that could lead to further job losses. Critics also say Colombia hasn't gone far enough to address human rights issues, including anti-union violence.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issued a statement blasting Bush's move, saying it is one of Bush's "numerous bad decisions during his administration that have already cost countless American workers their jobs and have done profound harm to U.S. foreign policy."
"By sending up the Colombia FTA [fast-track authority] legislation under circumstances that maximize the chances it will fail, he will be adding one more mistake ot his legacy and one more mess for the next president to clean up," Reid said.
Reid also criticized Colombia's lack of worker protections, saying "Many Democrats continue to have serious concerns about an agreement that creates the highest level of economic integration with a country where workers and their families are routinely murdered and subjected to violence and intimidation for seeking to exercise their most basic economic rights. And the perpetrators of the violence have near total impunity."
And Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, issued a statement saying: "Not only is it a continuation of bad trade policy, but it ignores the gruesome human rights and labor rights violations which have plagued Colombia. ...
"The U.S.-Colombia FTA lacks strong or enforceable labor and environmental provisions, important food and product safety standards and many other important provisions that would make it an agreement that would benefit my constituents and one that I could therefore support."
But the top House Republican, Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, said he'll stand behind the trade deal.
"We need to give our farmers and business owners equal access to the Colombian market. Passing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement means more jobs for people here in the United States. It is a simple matter of fairness for American workers," Boehner said, according to remarks released by his office.
The administration's push for congressional approval comes at a time when the U.S. economy is flirting with a full-on recession, job loss reports are increasing and a continuing mortgage crisis is fueling a nationwide credit crunch.
Officials argue the deal will aid American manufacturers to the tune of $1.1 billion more in revenues a year by "leveling the playing field": while U.S. exporters face up to 35 percent in export tariffs, most Colombian goods arrive on U.S. shores tax-free.
Bush cited Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's opposition to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as one of the chief reasons Congress should support the document, which both Colombia and the White House have signed onto.
Bush said Colombia faces continued threats from Chavez's government, including the Venezuelan leader's recent order to build up troops along the Venezuela-Colombia border, as well as Venezuelan government meetings with Colombian rebels.
"President Uribe has stood strongly against these threats, and he does so with the assurance of American support because his fight against tyranny and terror is a fight that we share," Bush said. Uribe, Bush said, believes the free-trade agreement's approval "is the best way for
America to demonstrate our support for Colombia."
The Colombian trade deal also made a splash on the presidential campaign trail this week. Hillary Clinton's chief campaign strategist Mark Penn made a quick exit from the Democrat's top ranks after The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Penn met with Colombian officials about the trade deal.
Penn, a polarizing figure as well as the chief executive of a major public relations firm, said he was meeting with the officials in his capacity as worldwide president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, but still apologized for making the meeting. On Sunday, Penn stepped down as Clinton's chief strategist but will retain his role as her pollster.
Clinton is staunchly opposed to the trade deal and will likely have a vote on the bill when it comes to the Senate. She issued a statement Monday saying she will vote against the bill.
"I am disappointed that President Bush has decided to send the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress. As I have said consistently for several months, I oppose signing any trade deal with Colombia while violence against trade unionists continues and the perpetrators are not brought to justice. The United States should be pursuing trade agreements that promote human rights and worker rights, not overlook egregious abuses," Clinton said.
Under special "fast-track" rules, Congress will have 90 days to act on the deal once received from the White House.
The fast-track rules — known as Trade Promotion Authority — were passed by Congress as part of the Trade Act of 2002 and signed into law on August 6, 2002.
TPA is a pact under which the executive branch agrees to consult with Congress during the negotiations, and Congress agrees to hold an "up or down" vote on the agreement. The procedures apply to the trade deal since it was signed by the two countries before TPA expired on July 1, 2007.
The clock starts ticking in the House Ways and Means Committee, which has a maximum of 45 legislative days after the president sends the agreement to Capitol Hill to act and send the bill to the full House for a vote. The full House must vote within 15 legislative days, for a total of 60 legislative days.
If the House votes on the bill at any time between the 46th and 60th legislative day, the Senate Finance Committee has a maximum of 15 legislative days to act. The full Senate must then vote on the bill within 15 legislative days.
Congress has never taken the full 90 legislative days to enact legislation implementing a free-trade agreement.
FOX News' Steve Centanni and Chad Pergram contributed to this report.