By Paul Kane
The House voted yesterday to delay consideration of a trade agreement with Colombia, despite fierce opposition from the Bush administration and accusations by Republicans that Democrats were subverting long-standing laws on such pacts.
On a mostly party-line vote of 224 to 195, the House approved an internal rule change that altered the statutory timeline for congressional approval of trade deals negotiated by an administration. The new rule, supported by all but 10 Democrats, will give House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as much time as she wants to bring the agreement to the floor, rather than the 60-day standard for previous trade deals.
After the vote, Pelosi told reporters that President Bush's decision to send the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress on Tuesday was 'totally unnecessary.' She said she had previously told him that it would not be considered for a vote until the White House yielded to Democratic demands for support of additional domestic economic stimulus provisions, such as more money to help workers who lose jobs because of international competition and an extension of unemployment benefits.
'We will take back our leverage,' she said.
Bush and other Republicans singled out Pelosi by name in unusually tough criticism, even by the standards of the current partisan standoff along Pennsylvania Avenue.
'Today's unprecedented and unfortunate action by the House of Representatives -- led by Speaker Pelosi -- to change the rules governing legislation to implement our trade agreement with Colombia is damaging to our economy, our national security, and our relations with an important ally. It also undermines the trust required for any Administration to negotiate trade agreements in the future,' Bush said in a statement issued from his ranch in Crawford, Tex.
During the debate, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said: 'We're doing nothing here but hurting American businesses and American workers. Why? I think the speaker made it very clear. This action today is nothing short of political blackmail.'
The United States and Colombia -- whose trade totaled more than $18 billion in 2007 -- completed the agreement in 2006, then renegotiated its terms last year under demands from Democrats to toughen labor and environmental standards. Pelosi was involved in the 2007 discussions but voiced concern about labor protections.
The deal would open Colombia to many U.S. products currently subject to stiff tariffs. Under annual agreements, most Colombian goods can be exported duty-free to the United States, but the new pact would make the arrangement permanent.
Bush views loosening market barriers with Colombia as vital to the U.S. economy and as a boost to the rule of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a U.S. ally who Bush believes has made progress quelling violence and battling the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The United States considers the Marxist guerrilla force a terrorist group.
American labor unions, an important Democratic constituency in the fall elections, accuse the government of failing to protect workers who try to form labor unions in Colombia, alleging that more than 2,500 workers have been killed since 1991.
'Colombia needs years, not months, to ensure the eradication of union killings and impunity that have plagued that country for decades,' said Anna Burger, chairwoman of Change to Win, a coalition of seven unions.
The Colombian deal was to be considered under the 'fast track' laws. Those laws, which expired last year but pertain to this bill because it was originally signed in 2006, require Congress to approve or reject within 90 legislative days trade deals negotiated by the administration. The House has 60 legislative days from the time Bush sends a pact to Capitol Hill, and the Senate has 30 legislative days after that. No amendments are allowed.
Instead, House Democrats have halted the clock by changing internal chamber rules.
Pelosi has suggested that the trade deal -- which she believes would lose if voted on now -- would be quickly considered if Bush met her demands on other domestic spending measures.
But key Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade matters, said yesterday's action was part of a Democratic effort to completely reshape trade policy.
Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), a key ally of auto unions, said the next administration -- Democrat or Republican -- should not expect Congress to renew fast-track authority under its current form.
'Under any administration, fast track has to be reshaped. There has to be a greater role for Congress,' said Levin, chairman of the trade subcommittee. 'We ought to be able to say more than yes or no at the end.'
'We're going to rethink the whole concept of fast track in a Democratic administration,' said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a moderate on trade policy.