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Bush urges Congress to pass Colombia trade pact


Bush urges Congress to pass Colombia trade pact

4 March 2008

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush urged U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday to put aside differences over a free trade agreement with Colombia and approve the pact to show support for a strong U.S. ally at the center of a crisis in Latin America.

"If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down a close ally. We will damage our credibility in the region and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere," Bush said after talking by phone with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

The Andean region has become embroiled in a diplomatic and military crisis after a raid by Colombian troops into Ecuador on Saturday that killed a top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.

The group is seen as a terrorist group by Uribe and his backer, the United States. But Ecuador and Venezuela have responded to the raid by cutting diplomatic ties and ordering troops to their borders with Colombia.

"President Uribe told me that one of the most important ways America can demonstrate its support for Colombia is by moving forward with a free trade agreement that we negotiated," Bush said. "So Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to come together and approve this agreement."

The White House has tried for months to persuade Democratic leaders in Congress leaders to schedule a vote on the Colombia agreement. But many Democrats from districts with heavy union membership are strongly opposed to the pact.

Reflecting those views, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has insisted Colombia show more progress in reducing killings of trade unionists and putting murderers in jail before Congress votes on the free trade deal.

The Colombia agreement is protected by White House trade promotion authority, which requires Congress to approve or reject trade deals within 90 legislative days without making any changes. However, on Tuesday, Bush once again stopped short of saying he would use that option to force a vote.

John Murphy, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the White House is nearing the point where it may decide to send the agreement to Congress, even if House leaders don’t cooperate.

"To get to a vote this year, the administration will have to act sooner rather than later," Murphy said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Walsh)