Although the most salient disagreement between the administration and the new Democratic majority in Congress is over Iraq, trade long has been a bone of contention, especially as President Bush has struggled to retain so-called "fast track" authority.
The landmark North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA, championed by a Democratic president] passed with 102 Democratic votes 14 years ago; the Central American Free Trade Agreement squeaked by with 10 Democratic votes four years ago. Many legislators still feel stung by what they say were the broken promises of economic prosperity touted by NAFTA backers.
Early battles in this new Congress include the series of Latin American trade overtures – to Colombia, Peru, and Panama – made by President Bush and the Democratic insistence that these treaties include environmental and social provisions.
The House Ways and Means Committee's "New Trade Policy for America" states the battle cry succinctly: "The Constitution provides the authority to regulate foreign commerce to Congress under Art. 1, Sect. 8. Congress delegates this authority to the President under certain conditions. This is a first effort to re-establish the authority of Congress and recreate the right conditions for a U.S. trade policy whose benefits are broadly shared by all Americans."
While some had compared the likelihood of finding a pro-trade Democrat to spotting a unicorn, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued Democrats are not "anti-trade," but rather want to ensure that labor and environmental standards largely ignored by NAFTA and other trade agreements are incorporated into future accords. In May, she and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel helped broker a new trade policy with the White House. It addresses the right to unionize, bans child labor, and adheres to existing – if ignored – environmental regulations. The broken logjam is widely seen as the first bipartisan deal of the new Congress.
Against this backdrop, the agreements with Peru and Panama now seem to have a green light. But a trade agreement between the United States and Colombia still faces an uphill battle over congressional concerns that the government of President Alvaro Uribe has not adequately addressed the alleged ties between right-wing paramilitary groups and his administration.
"Many of us expressed our growing concerns about the serious allegations of connections between illegal paramilitary forces and a number of high-ranking Colombian officials," Ms. Pelosi said after meeting with Mr. Uribe in Washington. "It is essential that the Colombian government investigate and prosecute such officials, including those at high levels."
During a speech at the pro-business group Council of the Americas in Washington, Mr. Uribe defended his country's human rights record, denying his government had ties to violent right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia
"My government has not created an alliance with criminal groups," he said.
After the speech, Mr. Uribe faced a crowd of protesters chanting, "asesino" [murderer], but the Colombian president said his government has not committed any crimes. Mr. Uribe, a graduate of Harvard, also urged passage of a Colombia-U.S. trade agreement, saying a failure to do so would "send the wrong message."
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