February 28, 2008 / 3:58 PM / 12 years ago

Bush defends NAFTA and presses for Colombia vote

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush criticized Democratic presidential candidates on Thursday for suggesting the United States could “opt out” of the North American Free Trade Agreement and he urged Congress to boost U.S. exports by approving a trade deal with Colombia.

President George W. Bush holds a news conference in the White House Press Briefing Room in Washington February 28, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

“There are a lot of farmers and businesses, large and small, who are benefiting from having a market in our neighborhood. And the idea of just unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of, you know, trying to score political points is not good policy,” Bush said during a White House press conference.

During a presidential campaign debate this week in Ohio, Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama criticized NAFTA and said the United States could opt out of the agreement if Mexico and Canada don’t agree to renegotiate labor, environmental and investment provisions of the pact.

The candidates were responding to the strong view of many Ohio voters that the 14-year-old agreement is responsible for many manufacturing job losses in that state, which holds a crucial presidential voting contest on Tuesday.

Bush warned withdrawing from the pact would hurt U.S. farmers and businesses, which export around $380 billion worth of goods to Canada and Mexico each year, and send a signal that the United States does not honor its trade commitments.

In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised NAFTA as a success for all three countries and said he took Clinton and Obama’s remarks with “a grain of salt” because they were made in the heat of a campaign.

“Of course, if any American government ever chose to make the mistake of opening (NAFTA), we would have some things we would want to talk about as well,” Harper said when questioned in parliament on the issue.

Meanwhile, Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, told the Financial Times in a story published on Thursday that reopening the pact “would be like throwing a monkey wrench into the engine of North American competitiveness.”

Bush also warned that congressional rejection of an unpopular free trade pact with Colombia would damage U.S. national security interests in the Latin American region. He said he expected lawmakers to vote on the pact soon.

“The Colombia free trade vote is coming up,” Bush said.

Colombia currently receives duty-free treatment for most of its goods under a U.S. trade preference programs that dates back to the early 1990s.

The pending trade deal would lock in that duty-free access and phase out Colombia’s tariffs on U.S. exports.

Congressional Democrats have said Colombia needs to make more progress in reducing violence against trade unionists and putting murderers in jail before they can support the pact.

Both Obama and Clinton oppose voting on the Colombia agreement at this time.

Asked on Thursday whether the House was ready to act on the Colombia agreement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded: “Is Colombia ready for it?”

Additional reporting by Louise Egan in Ottawa

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