WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to indefinitely delay action on a free trade agreement with Colombia, a move the White House said it feared would kill the pact.
“Today’s unprecedented and unfortunate action by the House of Representatives ... is damaging to our economy, our national security, and our relations with an important ally,” President George W. Bush said in a statement that emphasized Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s role in the vote.
Colombia has received billions in U.S. aid to help combat its guerrilla insurgency and cocaine trade and is Washington’s closest ally in a region where left-wing leaders are touting socialism to counter U.S. free-market proposals.
The House voted 224-195 to indefinitely delay consideration of the pact by eliminating a trade law requirement that Congress approve or reject the controversial deal within 90 days, including a 60-day deadline for House action.
“This vote today is a vote to kill the Colombia free trade agreement. Nothing more, nothing less,” House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said, echoing comments from the White House and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.
Colombia’s stock market closed down 1.63 percent on Thursday, due in part to news of the House vote.
The House vote was a victory for U.S. labor groups, a key Democratic Party constituency that strongly opposes the pact on grounds that Colombia has not done enough to stop killings of trade unionists and bring their murderers to justice.
But U.S. business groups have pushed hard for approval of the trade deal, which they said would level the playing field for U.S. exports in a fast-growing market.
Republicans said the vote was good news for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a leftist foe of United States who has criticized Colombia for signing the trade pact.
Top U.S. defense officials said they worried security in the region could be put at risk if Colombian President Alvaro Uribe suffers politically from failing to deliver the trade deal.
“Colombia’s security is very important and it would be a shame to see the progress that’s been made there put at risk because they face economic difficulties or because President Uribe suffers political consequences because his good friend, the United States of America, basically turned its back on him,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Pelosi, a California Democrat, said Bush had violated “protocol” by sending the agreement to Congress this week against her advice.
She said it was still possible Congress could pass the agreement this year if the White House and Democrats can agree on new legislation to bolster the U.S. economy.
But for now, “Mr. President, you simply don’t have the votes,” Pelosi said. “If we are to be successful in passing a trade agreement, we have to first tell the American people that we have a positive economic agenda that addresses their aspirations, addresses their concerns.”
Afterward, Pelosi told reporters the vote “strengthens everyone’s hand actually ... There’s a better chance to bring a bill to the floor that will pass.”
Although 10 Democrats voted against the rule change, most party members said the action was needed to restore Congress’ constitutional jurisdiction over trade in the face of White House arrogance.
But Schwab complained Democrats had “moved the goalposts” each time the administration had done what they said was needed to ensure approval of the Colombia trade deal.
That includes renegotiating the agreement — originally signed in November 2006 — last year to include stronger labor and environmental provisions demanded by House Democrats, Schwab said.
Bush administration officials said the close vote on the rule change showed they could have mustered the 218 votes needed for approval if Pelosi had scheduled a straight up-or-down vote on the pact.
Colombia currently has duty-free access to the U.S. market for almost all of its goods under a one-way trade preference program. The free trade deal makes those benefits permanent, requires Colombia to eliminate tariffs on U.S. goods and make other business-friendly reforms.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Kristin Roberts in Washington and Patrick Markey in Bogota; editing by Eric Beech