Trade accord faces long odds

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Facing what are widely seen as long odds, President Bush began yesterday the contentious process of trying to win congressional approval of a free trade agreement with Colombia that critics, including many in the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, say does not do enough to protect workers here or in that South American nation.

The Bush administration argues that the measure would benefit Americans by opening a large market to U.S. goods and would reward a Latin American ally striving to overcome political instability and shut down its narcotics trade.

Critics charge that although there has been progress since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia has not done enough to stem attacks on labor leaders or protect human rights.

Bush is facing a powerful challenge in seeking House and Senate approval as legislators prepare to go before voters concerned that foreign competition could threaten jobs.

The outcome is made all the more difficult by Bush's sagging popularity, the opposition to the agreement by the two Democratic presidential contenders and growing concerns about the U.S. economy.

All of which brings up this question: Why is he taking the step now, risking angering - or at least embarrassing - Colombia with a defeat and dooming the 16-month-old pact's approval?

Because, say administration officials and experts on Latin America outside the administration, waiting would accomplish nothing and the clock is running out on his term.

Under the protocol for considering the agreement, negotiated under provisions that give Congress a yes-or-no vote and no opportunity to amend the pact, the House has 60 legislative working days - the days in which it is in session - to vote on it. The Senate then has 30 working days.

Bush signed a letter yesterday sending the measure to Congress. By the administration's estimate, the 90-day calendar would expire in September, when Congress is expected to adjourn for the election campaign.

Colombia, with 44 million residents, is the second most populous nation in South America after Brazil.

In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said Bush is disregarding Americans' "economic insecurity" and that they could not support the pact.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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