Bush gives Congress 90 days to pass Colombia trade deal

April 8th, 2008 - 6:40 am ICT by admin  

Washington, April 8 (DPA) US President George W. Bush Monday gave Congress until September to approve a free-trade agreement with Colombia, telling Democrats who oppose the deal that it is vital for the US economy and national security interests. Democratic Party leaders immediately attacked Bush for abusing his “fast-track” authority, which forces a straight “yes” or “no” vote in Congress on trade deals without allowing legislators to make amendments.

Bush, who signed the free trade initiative with the South American country 16 months ago, said a failure to approve the deal would run the risk of damaging the US’ reputation in Latin America and weaken a key ally in the region.

“The need for this agreement is too urgent, the stakes for our national security are too high to allow this year to end without a vote,” Bush said.

Colombia is a key ally of the US in Latin America and receives substantial economic and military aid for its battle against left-wing rebels and drug traffickers.

But Democrats are worried about the high rate of union workers killed in the country and have sought changes that would require the Colombian government to do more to tackle the problem.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the chamber, said Bush was “undercutting” support for the free-trade deal by sending it to Congress before those concerns were addressed, and warned that the move could have repercussions for future trade deals.

“By thumbing his nose at the basic processes that underlie Congress’ willingness to extend fast-track authority to a president, President Bush is dealing a serious blow to US trade policy for years to come,” Reid said in a statement.

The Colombian government in a statement said it had already made good progress in reducing crime, and echoed Bush’s warning that the positive steps could be in jeopardy without US aid.

“This is the moment when we need our allies side by side to keep building a new Colombia,” the statement said.

Colombia has already ratified the agreement, both when it was first signed and after changes were made last year. Republican and Democratic legislators agreed in May on a series of new environmental and labour standards to be included in all future trade deals, forcing changes in the Colombia deal.

Bush chose Monday to send the trade agreement to Congress in order to force a vote before the legislature adjourns for the year on Sep 26, according to US trade representative Susan B Schwab. Congress now has 90 legislative days to schedule a vote, making the final day Sep 25.

Bush had discussed Monday’s move with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the US House of Representatives, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.

Bush said Colombia had made progress in the fight against terrorism, kidnapping and reducing violence against union workers. He warned that the United States would “abandon a brave ally” if Congress voted against the free trade deal.

“People throughout the (Western) hemisphere are watching to see what the United States will do,” Bush said. “If Congress fails to approve this agreement … it would send a signal throughout the region that America cannot be counted on to support its friends.”

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