WASHINGTON President George W. Bush pressed Congress on Thursday to approve a free trade pact with Colombia, one day after Republican presidential candidate John McCain went after his Democratic opponent Barack Obama for opposing the agreement.
"Congress is coming back to Washington next month. One of the top priorities should be to approve this vital agreement with Colombia as well as (other trade pacts) with Panama and South Korea," Bush said at a ceremony to sign a bill to renew expiring trade benefits for Andean countries.
His words reinforced McCain's attempt during the final presidential debate on Wednesday night to portray Obama as hostile to free trade.
McCain argued the pact would bolster ties with an important regional ally "helping us try to stop the flow of drugs into our country that's killing young Americans," while leveling the playing field for U.S. goods.
"Free trade with Colombia is something that's a no-brainer. But maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better," McCain said.
"Actually, I understand it pretty well," Obama shot back. "The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions."
Obama insisted he supported free trade.
"But I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Sen. McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement," Obama said.
The United States and Colombia signed the free trade pact shortly after the November 2006 election in which Democrats won control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
Since then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has refused to take up the agreement, leading to a showdown with Bush earlier this year.
Pelosi first cited concerns about a long history of murder and other violence against trade unionists in Colombia as the main reason Democrats wanted to delay the pact.
After Bush tried in April to force a vote, Pelosi said Congress needed to pass a second economic stimulus package and legislation to expand the federal "trade adjustment assistance" program before she would allow action.
Some business lobbyists still see a long-shot chance Congress will approve the Colombia pact this year, but their labor group opponents say that is far-fetched.
Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador have received duty-free treatment for most of their exports to the United States under a program that dates back to 1991 to create jobs outside the region's huge illegal drug sector.
Congress approved a trade deal with Peru last year locking in those benefits, but it has not gone into force.
The bill Bush signed on Wednesday extends trade benefits for Colombia and Peru through the end of 2009.
It also provides a six-month extension for both Bolivia and Ecuador and gives the White House the authority to renew benefits for both countries another six months.
In Bolivia's case, the extension could be moot since Bush began steps last month to suspend it from the program.
"Unfortunately Bolivia has failed to cooperate with the United States on important efforts to fight drug trafficking. So sadly, I have proposed to suspend Bolivia's trade preferences until it fulfills its obligations," Bush said.