WASHINGTON – President Bush, ahead of his trip next week to a summit with North American leaders, said Saturday that the House's decision to block a vote on a Colombia free trade agreement was a "serious error" and urged Congress to reconsider.
The Bush administration has insisted that the deal would be good for the U.S. economy because it would eliminate high barriers that American exports to Colombia now face. Most Colombian products already are entering the United States duty-free under existing trade preference laws.
"The situation is completely one-sided," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "Our markets are open to Colombian products, but barriers that make it harder to sell American goods in Colombia remain. If the free trade agreement were implemented, however, most of Colombia's tariffs on American goods would be eliminated immediately."
Democrats, however, have cited the continued violence against organized labor in Colombia and differences with the administration over how to extend a program that helps U.S. workers displaced by foreign competition.
Bush sent the agreement to Capitol Hill 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.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who initiated the rules 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.
Pelosi denied that Democrats were seeking to block the trade agreement, but wanted to create a timetable for consideration of the bill that was sensitive to the concerns of America's working families.
"Unfortunately, the speaker of the House has chosen to block the Colombia free trade agreement instead of giving it an up-or-down vote that Congress committed to," Bush said. "Her action is unprecedented and extremely unfortunate. I hope that the speaker will change her mind. If she does not, the agreement will be dead. And this will be bad for American workers and bad for America's national security."
Bush, who is meeting Monday and Tuesday in New Orleans with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon to talk about trade and other issues affecting the hemisphere, has staked out free trade as one of his chief economic legacies.
He won a bruising battle to implement the Central American Free Trade Agreement with six countries in Latin America as well as a number of individual pacts. Other agreements with Panama and South Korea are also pending.
Bush used his entire radio address to push the free-trade deal with Colombia, a key U.S. ally in South America.
"Today, almost all of Colombia's exports to the United States enter duty-free, but the 9,000 American businesses that export to Colombia — including nearly 8,000 small and mid-sized firms — face significant tariffs on their products," Bush argued.
Bush said that by obstructing the agreement, Congress is signaling to the Western Hemisphere that the U.S. cannot be trusted to support its allies. He said that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has transformed his country from a near-failed state to a stable democracy with a growing economy and has been a partner with the United States in fighting drugs and terrorism.
"He (Uribe) has addressed virtually every one of Congress' concerns, including revising the free trade agreement to include some of the most rigorous labor and environmental protections in history," Bush said. "He has done all this while his country is under violent assault from a terrorist organization and facing constant intimidation from anti-American regimes in the region."
"Leaders in Congress have made a serious error, but it is not too late to get it right."