Clinton reiterates opposition to Colombia trade pact

Embarrassing reports have put her campaign on the defensive.

April 09, 2008|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged Tuesday to defeat a free-trade agreement with Colombia, even as her presidential campaign was kept on the defensive by disclosures related to the proposed pact.

Her camp acknowledged reports that Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, supports the deal with Colombia. The New York senator's campaign also was hit by another call for the outright ouster of longtime aide Mark Penn.

Penn was demoted last weekend from his job as the campaign's chief strategist over his business contact with the Colombian government in his role as head of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.

Speaking about the Colombia trade deal at a Washington meeting of the Communications Workers of America union, Clinton proclaimed: "As I have said for months, I oppose the deal. I have spoken out against the deal, I will vote against the deal, and I will do everything I can to urge the Congress to reject the Colombia Free Trade Agreement."

Her Democratic rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, spoke to union members moments after Clinton left the stage, saying that he also is against the treaty, which President Bush sent to Congress on Monday. Obama said he opposed the pact "because when organizing workers puts an organizer's life at risk, as it does in Colombia, it makes a mockery of our labor protections."

Clinton's criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- a signature achievement of her husband's presidency -- and other trade deals that she contends hurt American workers has been central to her bid to draw blue-collar voters. That stance has been highlighted in Pennsylvania, which is holding a key primary April 22.

She was put in an awkward position by the disclosure of her husband's support for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Likewise, the candidate was embarrassed by last week's revelation that Penn had met with the Colombian ambassador to the United States. His public relations firm had been helping Colombia try to win congressional approval for the proposed pact.

While acknowledging Bill Clinton's support of the trade pact, Clinton campaign spokesman Jay Carson said that Hillary Clinton's opposition is "clear and firm."

He added: "Like other married couples who disagree on issues from time to time, she disagrees with her husband on this issue. President Clinton has been public about his support for Colombia's request for U.S. trade preferences since 2000."

Among the prominent officials urging Penn's removal was Teamsters Union President James P. Hoffa, an Obama backer.

In a conference call with reporters arranged by the Obama campaign, Hoffa said, "You can't have a guy on your payroll that's working for a foreign nation and is basically lobbying for Colombia."

But Hoffa seemed to veer off message -- returning to an issue that has embarrassed Obama -- when he suggested that he wasn't happy about disclosures that Obama's senior economics advisor, Austan Goolsbee, met privately in February with Canadian officials to discuss NAFTA.

Although accounts of the meeting differ, a Canadian diplomatic memo written after the session concluded that Obama's criticism of NAFTA was more about political maneuvering than concrete policy.

Hoffa, in the conference call, said that Goolsbee "should make a statement -- say what he believes and what he's advising Barack Obama about. And Barack Obama should do the same thing. End this mystery about what happened."

Obama's press office did not return calls about Hoffa's comments.

Separately, another poll showed tightening in the Pennsylvania primary contest. The Pennsylvania survey, conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, showed Clinton leading the state with 50% of the vote. That gave her an edge over Obama of 6 percentage points -- compared with 9 percentage points a week earlier and 12 percentage points in mid-March.

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