WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday refused President Bush's demand to ratify a free-trade deal with Colombia, voting to delay consideration of the pact until after the November election.
The House's action effectively pushed debate on the politically sensitive trade deal into the next administration and averted a potentially embarrassing showdown for the Democratic presidential candidates.
Republicans denounced the move, saying it damaged a key ally and undermined American credibility.
"Today's unprecedented and unfortunate action by the House of Representatives . . . is damaging to our economy, our national security and our relations with an important ally," Bush said in a statement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) cast the 224-195 vote as an effort to push an out-of-touch administration to do more to help ordinary Americans in economic distress. Once the administration addresses those needs, she said, Congress will go forward with the trade pact.
"We certainly should do more for our own economy before passing another trade agreement," she said, citing recent jobless data and the statement Tuesday by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan that the U.S. is "in the throes of a recession."
"We are ready to work with the president on a second stimulus package to get our economy back on track and creating jobs," Pelosi said. "That must be our first priority."
Trade, always a thorny topic in presidential elections, has emerged as a central theme as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois battle for Democratic voters in Pennsylvania, where residents have lost jobs to globalization and many strongly oppose trade deals. The state's primary is April 22.
The issue has become so sensitive that Clinton recently dismissed a top campaign advisor, Mark Penn, because the public relations firm he heads had been hired by the Colombian government to promote the pact.
Controversy over the Colombia deal also highlights a strong policy difference between the two Democratic candidates and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. They oppose it; McCain backs it.
With trade increasingly prominent in the presidential campaign, Tuesday's vote saved Clinton and Obama from a difficult choice: The pact was backed by business groups that support the two candidates, but it was vehemently opposed by a traditional Democratic ally -- organized labor, which has condemned the ongoing slayings of Colombian labor activists.
Bush negotiated the Colombia deal 16 months ago under "fast track" authority, which gives the president the power to arrange trade deals in close consultation with Congress. In exchange, lawmakers pledge to give trade deals a quick up-or-down vote, with no amendments. The House must vote within 60 legislative days and the Senate within 90.
Tuesday's vote gave House leaders the power to consider the Colombia measure whenever they want to. Under congressional rules, the House is the first chamber to debate any bill that affects revenue. The Senate is unable to take up the measure until the House acts.
The vote was largely along party lines, with 10 Democrats breaking ranks. In the California delegation, all Democrats voted to delay the pact and all Republicans were opposed.
In pushing back the vote, Republicans said, the Democrats were engaging in political blackmail.
"We're doing nothing here but hurting American businesses and American workers," said Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "The speaker made it clear that she has her agenda. She wants the president to deal with her on her agenda, and we're not going to move this bill until the president deals with her agenda. That is not the way to deal with our trading partners."
Republicans warned that the delay could also affect pending trade deals with South Korea and Peru.
The Democrats contended that Bush had not fully consulted with them about the Colombia deal. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) chastised the president from the House floor: "Give the House more time to allow members to know what's in the bill," he said.
Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) noted that the administration had held 450 meetings on the pact since August 2007 and had taken 55 legislators to Colombia to see the country for themselves.
"That's the deal -- close consultation followed by a timely vote," Dreier said. "I find it shocking our Democratic friends would turn their back" on the South American nation.
In Bogota, President Alvaro Uribe responded to the vote by urging that both sides "find a bipartisan solution in such a way that the treaty can be approved. Every day that passes is an opportunity lost by citizens of both countries."
Colombia ships coffee, fruit, oil and clothing, its biggest exports, to the U.S. free of duty. The pact would make that status permanent. It would also require Colombia to eliminate tariffs on U.S. goods, allow American firms into its services market and make other business-friendly reforms. Trade between the two nations amounted to $18 billion in 2007.
Times staff writer Chris Kraul in Bogota contributed to this report.