WASHINGTON – The Democratic-led House, in an election-year showdown with the White House, on Thursday effectively denied President Bush a vote any time soon on a free trade agreement with Colombia, a key South American ally.
The House voted 224-195 to eliminate a rule forcing it to vote on the trade agreement within 60 legislative days of the president's submitting it to Congress. Bush sent the agreement to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, starting a 90-day clock for the House and then the Senate to either approve or reject the pact.
The House action in all likelihood kills consideration of the Colombia agreement this year, leaving it for the next administration. Both Democratic presidential nominees, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have expressed skepticism about the benefits of free trade agreements.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who initiated the rules change, blamed Bush for submitting the agreement to Congress before a consensus was reached with congressional leaders on outstanding differences.
She said that in a phone conversation with Bush on Monday she warned him that the agreement would be defeated if a vote were taken now, and that the priority should instead being on measures to revive the U.S. economy.
Bush, she said, "abandoned the traditions of consultations that have governed past agreements."
"You forgot to consult with us," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said, referring to Bush. "You did not deal with some of the issues we have."
Republicans angrily condemned the rules change. It "aligns with the goals of (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez and South America's narco-terrorists," said Rep. David Dreier of California, top Republican on the Rules Committee.
"This action today is nothing short of political blackmail," said Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, contending that Pelosi was using it to force the president to deal with her agenda.
The administration, which has promoted the Colombia deal as a way to show solidarity with an ally, was equally strong in condemning the action. "To change the rules in the middle of the game is, as I said, both unprecedented and unfair," U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said Wednesday at a news conference on the Democratic move attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other Cabinet secretaries.
"From the perspective of American foreign policy and American interests, there is perhaps no more important free trade agreement in recent memory," Rice said.
The Democratic Congress did approve a free trade agreement last year with Peru, but has balked at moving ahead with Colombia, partly because of continued violence against organized labor in Colombia and partly because of differences with the administration over how to extend a program that helps American workers displaced by foreign competition.
Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., cited figures that in the first 12 weeks of this year 17 trade unionists in Colombia were assassinated. "When it comes to issues like human rights, I refuse to be a cheap date."
U.S. organized labor and human rights groups have generally opposed the Colombia deal because of the problems of labor leaders in the South American country. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have actively lobbied for the deal, saying it will remove tariffs that impede American exports to the country.
Almost all Colombian goods already enjoy duty-free status when sold in the United States. Trade between the two countries reached about $18 billion last year.