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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab told Congress on Thursday that "the time is now" to approve a free trade agreement with Colombia, rather than wait for that country to make more progress in reducing violence against labor unionists.
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 troops to their borders with Colombia.
President George W. Bush has supported Colombia, which gets billions of dollars in military aid from Washington to fight rebels and drug cartels.
Bush could be edging toward sending the Colombia agreement to Congress, possibly as early as next week, whether Democratic leaders want to vote on it or not.
"This administration will not yield in our efforts to persuade Congress to do the right thing -- and approving the Colombia FTA is most assuredly the right thing," Schwab said in testimony to 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 ignored the "clear and compelling" progress Colombia had already made and threatened relations with a strong U.S. ally in a volatile region.
Colombia's murder rate is at the lowest level in more than a decade and the prosecutor general's office already has stepped up efforts to resolve 187 priority cases of violence against trade unionists, she said.
"The time is now" to approve the pact, Schwab told the panel in her prepared remarks. "By delaying its consideration, or voting it down, we accomplish nothing. Or worse."
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday in the administration's latest effort to convince her to schedule a vote on the pact.
A House Democratic aide, speaking on condition he not be identified, said Pelosi was unpersuaded and still opposed holding a vote on the agreement at this time.
Doug Goudie, director of international trade policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said he believed the White House would insist on that, even if it could not persuade congressional leaders to go along.
"This agreement is going to go up one way or another. The mistake is to focus on the process. What we need to do is focus on the merits of the agreement, rather than how it arrives," Goudie said.
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.
That's still the preferred option, Schwab told reporters in response to a published report that Bush could send the Colombia agreement to Congress next week.
The Colombia deal is the first of three free trade agreements the Bush administration is struggling to persuade Congress to approve this year. The others are with South Korea and Panama.
In a testy exchange with Schwab, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said there was little hope for the pacts unless Congress and the Bush administration agreed first on a bill to expand federal the trade adjustment assistance program, which provides financial aid for workers who have lost their jobs because of trade.
Although Bush has said he wants to work with Congress to revamp the trade adjustment assistance program, he has threatened to veto a bill passed by the House.
Democrats want to expand the program to include service industry workers, in addition to those in manufacturing sectors. They also want to include workers whose jobs have been moved to India, China and other countries not currently covered by the program, as well as other reforms.
Editing by Peter Cooney