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Pelosi will fight timing of trade vote

THE NATION

The House speaker's stance hurts the Colombia deal's chances and angers the Bush administration.

April 10, 2008|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The crosstown tensions between the White House and Congress broke into the open Wednesday, threatening new obstacles for President Bush's effort to win approval of a free trade agreement with Colombia.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) moved to undo a timetable that would have forced the House to vote on the measure before adjourning for the fall campaign.

Her announcement prompted an angry response from the White House and nearly half of the Cabinet, and raised the prospect that the animosity that has marred Bush's relations with the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, a spillover from the war in Iraq, would make cooperation in the remaining months of his term even more difficult.

Between the new demands placed on Bush by the speaker, and the daggers tossed from each end of Pennsylvania Avenue, prospects for passage grew even less likely. But Pelosi and Bush both have room, and time, to maneuver.

Approval of the pact has become one of the administration's top priorities.

Organized labor is focused on defeating it because, among other things, labor groups say Colombia has not done enough to protect the rights of workers and the lives of union organizers, who have been the targets of violent attacks.

Although some Democrats quietly favor the measure, both candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination oppose it, making it even harder for Pelosi to let the legislation enacting the agreement come to a vote.

The U.S. and Colombia signed the pact 16 months ago, under trade law provisions that give the House and the Senate the authority only to vote it up or down, with no opportunity to amend it.

At the heart of the fight, said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who specializes in congressional studies, is "the Democrats' belief that Bush simply can't be dealt with in any serious way."

"They're in no mood to cater to his desires now," he said.

The administration argues that because many Colombian goods already enter the U.S. duty-free, the agreement would benefit workers, farmers and business here by removing Colombian tariffs that are as high as 35% on some U.S.-manufactured goods and up to 80% on some agricultural products.

After meeting with Democratic House members, Pelosi told reporters that she would seek today to change the rules for dealing with the legislation, removing a requirement that Congress take up trade bills within 90 legislative days of delivery to Capitol Hill.

The White House sent the measure to Congress on Tuesday, figuring that it would come up for a vote just before the fall adjournment.

"The president took his action," Pelosi said Wednesday. "I will take mine tomorrow."

Later, congressional leaders from both parties met with Bush, and the speaker said outside the White House that she would schedule consideration of the pact only after Bush signed and funded what she presented as new measures to stimulate the economy.

Soon after Pelosi announced she would seek to delay a vote, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who does not generally become involved in trade issues, told a White House news briefing that the U.S. had "no stronger friend in Latin America than Colombia."

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

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