WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House may have to force lawmakers to make up their minds on a free trade agreement with Colombia by submitting it to Congress for a vote, a senior Republican said on Tuesday.
“I hope he does send it up because I think we’ll need to ask people to fish or cut bait,” Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, told the Reuters Regulation Summit.
The White House still hopes to persuade Democratic leaders in Congress to voluntarily schedule a vote on the pact, instead of forcing a confrontation on the issue.
However, after President George W. Bush made a high-profile appeal last week in his final State of the Union speech for the agreement, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said there were no plans to take up the pact.
Democrats have demanded more evidence Colombia is serious about stopping murders of trade unionists. They also have concerns about the lingering influence of former paramilitary commanders who committed massacres and smuggled cocaine in the name of countering Marxist guerrillas.
The Bush administration says a sharp drop in homicides, kidnappings and “terrorist” acts since 2002 shows how much progress Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has already made.
It argues approving the agreement would reinforce those gains, while rejecting it would send a dangerous signal about the United States’ commitment to Latin America.
The White House could submit the agreement to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote under the “trade promotion authority” legislation it used to negotiate the pact.
But some business groups worry a confrontational move like that would kill the pact by prompting Democratic leaders to pressure all party members to vote against it.
“Well, then I wonder where we’re any worse off than we are right now, except it’s done,” Grassley said.
Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia currently have duty-free access to the U.S. market for almost all of their exports under legislation that dates back to 1991 and expires for the third time in 14 months at the end of February.
Grassley, whose home state of Iowa is a major agricultural exporter, has tried to keep pressure on Democrats to approve the Colombian agreement by supporting only short-term extensions of the Andean trade preference program.
Grassley said he did not know if Democrats would be able to push through a longer extension this time, “but my position now is we ought to get Colombia if they’re going to get that.”
Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, has said Congress must first pass legislation to help workers who have lost their jobs because of trade before considering free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
The White House has said it wants to work with Congress to reform federal trade adjustment assistance, but has threatened to veto a House bill extending the program to service industry and public sector workers. Currently only manufacturing workers qualify for the program.
Grassley said the White House would have to agree, within limits, to Democratic demands for broader program coverage.
“I’m in favor — unlike a year or two ago — of including some service industry workers. But I don’t want to go down the line to include every McDonald’s employee that lost a job” because other businesses in their city have closed their doors due to foreign competition, Grassley said.
(For summit blog: summitnotebook.reuters.com/)
Editing by Tim Dobbyn