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USTR Schwab: "Time is now" on Colombia trade pact


USTR Schwab: "Time is now" on Colombia trade pact

6 March 2008

WASHINGTON, March 6 (Reuters) - U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab told Congress on Thursday "the time is now" to approve a free trade agreement with Colombia, signaling a fight with lawmakers seeking stronger rights for workers.

Schwab’s comments came days after Colombia set off a major diplomatic crisis in the Andes when its troops crossed into Ecuador to kill Marxist guerrillas, prompting Venezuela and Ecuador to move their troops to their borders with Colombia.

U.S. President George W. Bush has supported Colombia, which gets billions of dollars in military aid from Washington to fight rebels and drug cartels.

"This administration will not yield in our efforts to persuade Congress to do the the right thing — and approving the Colombia FTA is most assuredly the right thing," Schwab said in testimony prepared for the Senate Finance Committee.

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have insisted that Colombia make more progress in reducing murders of trade unionists and putting their killers in jail before Congress votes on the free trade deal.

Schwab said that stance ignores the progress Colombia has already made and threatens relations with a strong U.S. ally in a volatile region.

"The time is now" to approve the pact, Schwab told the panel. "By delaying its consideration, or voting it down, we accomplish nothing. Or worse."

The Colombia agreement is protected by trade promotion authority, which requires Congress to approve or reject trade agreements within 90 days without making changes.

The White House has hoped to persuade Democratic leaders to voluntarily schedule a vote, without forcing them to do that under trade promotion authority. (Reporting by Doug Palmer, editing by Vicki Allen)