WASHINGTON - President Bush stepped up pressure Monday on Congress to approve a controversial free-trade pact with Colombia, saying the deal is "dead" unless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi schedules a vote.
After a meeting with his Cabinet, Bush said it's not in America's interest to "stiff an ally" like Colombia.
Bush sent the agreement to Capitol Hill earlier 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.
"This free trade agreement is in our national interests," Bush said. "Yet that bill is dead unless the speaker schedules a definite vote. This was an unprecedented move. It's not in our country's interests that we stiff an ally like Colombia and that we don't encourage our goods and services to be sold overseas."
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.
The president, Pelosi said Monday at a news conference, has demonstrated again "how out of touch he is with the concerns of America's working families." Responding to Bush's charges she had stiffed an ally, she said that "for seven long years the president's economic policies have stiffed" the American people.
Bush has staked out free trade as one of his chief economic legacies, winning 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. While two other agreements with Panama and South Korea are also pending, analysts said the Colombia agreement is likely to be the last one that has any chance of winning approval in Bush's last year in office.
The administration insisted the deal would be good for the United States economically because it would eliminate high barriers that U.S. exports to Colombia now face, while most Colombian products are already entering the United States duty-free under existing trade preference laws.
Trade also is shaping up as a key issue in the presidential campaign and in the fight for control of Congress.
The administration charged that Democrats were forsaking a key South American ally while Democrats said Colombia needed to do more to halt the violence against union organizers before they would consider the trade pact.
In explaining their opposition, Democrats 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.
White House press Dana Perino told reporters later that unless Pelosi scheduled a vote, she will be accused of killing the deal. Perino said she was not aware of any conversations between Bush and Pelosi since last week, but that presidential advisers are working with lawmakers.
"The president believes she (Pelosi) made a choice to kill the Colombia free trade agreement, and that if, and until, she schedules a vote on the Colombia free trade agreement, she has, in effect, killed it," Perino said.
Bush also talked with members of his Cabinet about the troubled U.S. economy and urged lawmakers to make his tax cuts permanent. Noting that income taxes are due on Tuesday, Bush said the economic stimulus package will allow some tax payments to be returned to taxpayers.
"The second week of May, checks and/or credits to your account will start coming to you," Bush said. "And that's going to be an important part of making sure this economy begins to recover in a way that will add confidence and hope."
"One way Congress can act is to make the tax cuts permanent. If they really are that concerned about economic uncertainty, they ought to create certainty in the tax code."
He said his administration has set up programs to help more homeowners stay in their homes, but that Congress also needs to modernize the Federal Housing Administration and implement other changes that will encourage the housing market to turn around.
"Congress recently has been working on legislation for beach monitoring and landscape conservation, and those are important issues, but not nearly as important as FHA modernization and the Colombia Free Trade Agreement or making the tax cuts permanent," Bush said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Bush's call to extend the tax cuts would help multimillionaires and special interests, not average working Americans. Reid said that stagnating incomes and rising health care, education, food and energy prices are squeezing middle-class families, who are looking for a change in U.S. economic policy — "not the same economic ideas that got us into this mess in the first place."
In Colombia, Sergio Clavijo, president of the National Association of Financial Institutions, blamed both the Colombians and the U.S. for delays in reaching a final deal, which meant any vote on the agreement would come up in a politically contentious election year.
"This is without doubt the wrong sign to countries in the emerging world, those trying to overcome violence or drug-trafficking through looking for stable trading partners: Here we have the U.S. refusing to extend its hand to its ally Colombia," he said. "They have looked for the excuse of problems in human rights, which do exist but if anything are improving."
However, Colombian Sen. Cecilia Lopez, a member of the opposition Liberal party that has argued against the trade agreement, said Colombia must take advantage of the delay and revise its strategy. "Our agricultural policy is in shambles and we're not ready for this flood of cheap subsidized American products," Lopez said.