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FTA push moves to top of Bush agenda

The Gate | July 18, 2007

FTA Push Moves To Top Of Bush Agenda

With the president’s top domestic priority — immigration overhaul — in tatters, the Bush administration is intensifying efforts to move its trade agenda on Capitol Hill, using national security as an argument for four free-trade deals it wants Congress to pass as quickly as possible.

As part of its push, administration officials will seek to galvanize allies in the business community to try to advance free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

"The pro-trade community sees these four agreements as a united set and believe it’s important to pass them all," said one senior administration official. "The ongoing effort is continuing to build and will ratchet up efforts toward building bipartisan majorities this fall."

Administration officials want Congress to move the Peru deal first, perhaps even before the August recess, but they will probably only get half of their wish. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday that none of the trade agreements would come to the floor until after the August break, but said the Peru deal would be brought up in the early fall.

In an echo of rhetoric rarely heard since the end of the Cold War, the administration plans to increasingly point to trade as a weapon to block the influence of regimes that seek to promote socialist ideas in Latin America.

Administration officials are careful not to mention Venezuela or left-wing president Hugo Chavez, but they are clearly concerned about his moves toward nationalizing industries and his use of charisma and oil money to spread his message in the region.

President Bush’s March tour of Latin America was widely seen as an attempt to counter Chavez’s appeal.

In a speech to business officials last night, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez left little doubt that the administration believes trade deals can help stem the influence of countries like Venezuela and Cuba by bolstering the region’s nascent democracies.

"The U.S. is not the only country vying for attention in Latin America today. Others have a different perspective on what the neighborhood should look like," he said, according to his prepared remarks.

"While others seek to suppress people, ideas and debate, we seek the empowerment of the individual," he said. "While some seek state control and the nationalization of economic sectors, we seek free markets." Gutierrez added that "a vote against these FTAs is a vote to slow vital reforms, helping those who wish to hamper the spread of free enterprise and democracy."

Despite determined opposition to the Colombia FTA by labor, Gutierrez made clear that the administration will go to bat for the agreement. Labor officials said they will pressure lawmakers to oppose the deal because of rampant violence against union leaders in the country.

Gutierrez argued that such opposition sends an unfortunate message to "Colombians and those in the region who want to replace violence with hope and opportunity."

In his speech, Gutierrez barely mentioned the stalled Doha round talks and renewal of presidential trade negotiating authority, issues which appear to have slipped behind the four trade deals on the administration’s agenda.

The Commerce Department also announced that Gutierrez will lead a trade mission to Vietnam later this year. "The mission will help U.S companies develop business and government contacts, solidify business strategies and obtain market access information" while addressing policy disputes, the department said in a statement.

— Keith Koffler, CongressDaily

 source: The Gate