WASHINGTON – Congressional leaders are expressing support for President Bush's proposal to let Colombia use U.S. helicopters and other equipment — now limited to the war on drugs — in its fight against insurgents.
``My predisposition is to be very supportive,'' Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said before meeting with Colombian President Andres Pastrana on Wednesday. ``President Pastrana especially has done an outstanding job in leading his country through some very difficult times.''
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said he would push to let U.S. military equipment be used against Colombian rebels as well as drug traffickers. He and Pastrana described Colombia as another battlefield in the global war on terrorism.
``Terrorism is terrorism, whether it's narcoterrorism or terrorism against a government,'' said Hastert, R-Ill.
``We have a common enemy that is narcoterrorism,'' said Pastrana, who was to meet with Bush on Thursday.
``In the last weeks, the last months, that is what we have had in our country and that is why we are asking the support of the United States to fight narcoterrorism, the support of the world to fight this common enemy, with its violence financed by drugs.''
In a departure from previous U.S. policy, Bush asked Congress to remove restrictions that prevent Colombia from using helicopters and other U.S. anti-drug aid to fight leftist guerrillas. Congress imposed the limits to avoid having the United States become entangled in a larger war.
Bush also is seeking $133 million to help Colombia stop guerrilla attacks on an oil pipeline, reduce kidnappings and rebuild bombed police stations, as well as $439 million in longer-term aid.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden said he was ``inclined to support'' Bush's proposal on the military equipment.
And it might not even require new legislation, he said, since the State Department has designated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, a terrorist organization.
Peace talks with FARC collapsed in February. Recently, bombings blamed on FARC have hit major cities and targeted Pastrana's likely successor in the May 26 elections, Alvaro Uribe, who has pledged to crack down on terror.
Daschle expressed concern about the future impact of changing current policy, given that Pastrana is leaving office this year.
``What will be the commitment of the new government?'' he said. ``What will be the intention of the Colombian government with regard to using their own forces? Why have we not been able to apprehend some of the FARC leaders yet? Those are questions that we'll be asking.''
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he favors relaxing some limits on the use of U.S. equipment.
``There is a danger of a narcoterrorist taking over that country,'' McCain said in an interview. ``Events have changed in Colombia since we passed the law. The safe areas have disappeared and the violence has spread.''
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere panel, gave qualified support to the idea.
``There's no question the United States needs to help, and I will be supportive of that,'' as long as the administration gets the other Andean countries, plus Brazil, on board and persuades Colombia's military to improve its abilities and crack down on human rights abuses by paramilitaries.
The United States has given Colombia $1.7 billion in the past two years to further Pastrana's $7.5 billion, six-year, anti-drug Plan Colombia, which includes a plan to persuade coca plant growers to switch to legitimate crops.
Bush wants Congress to approve an expanded Andean Trade Preference Act, intended to help Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru increase trade as an alternative to the drug business.
It passed the House in November. A different version is pending in the Senate, where Biden, D-Del., said a ``decided minority'' is delaying it. Earlier this month, Bush pressed the Senate to pass it by this Monday.