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Congress Outmaneuvers Bush on U.S.-Colombia FTA

April 10, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

UPDATE: The rule change discussed below was approved, largely along party lines.

House Democrats have found a clever way to regain control of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement that President Bush is trying to fast-track into law without the usual process of congressional consultation. They are trying to pass a bill to change the law that gives the President any authority on the issue in the first place.

Because of the Free Trade The Fast Track law, Congress is required to act on the U.S.-Colombia trade pact within 90 legislative days of when it was submitted to Congress. The Bush administration officially had the agreement introduced into Congress on April 8th in order to ensure that it is dealt with before Congress disbands for the year. Many Democrats, however, oppose the deal, citing human rights violations by the Colombian government.

Today the House will attempt a vote to change the Administration’s fast-track authority on this bill, giving Congress control of when and if they bring it up for a vote. Majority Whip James Clyburn’s (D-SC) Daily Whipline explains why they are doing it and how it will work:

>This flexibility is necessary to create time for there to be bipartisan negotiations on measures to strengthen the American economy and help American workers first. The worsening economic downturn, as evidenced by the jobless numbers on Friday and the statements by Fed Chairman Bernanke and now as recently as yesterday, former Fed Chairman Greenspan, requires that the top priority for this Congress is to get our economy back on track. Through bipartisan negotiations and action on the American economy, we can create the conditions and opportunity for the Colombia Free Trade deal to pass.
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>This change is necessitated by the President’s partisan actions. Instead of working with Congress on the economic concerns of the American people, on Tuesday, the President took the unprecedented step of sending up the Colombia Trade deal without following established protocols of Congressional consultation. His actions were political and counter-productive, jeopardizing prospects for its passage.
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>This rule would remove the fast-track timeline for the Colombia free-trade agreement — simply returning to Congress the rightful constitutional role in scheduling consideration of measures. The Fast Track law (PL 107-210) expressly recognizes “the constitutional right of either House to change the rules (so far as relating to the procedures of that House) at any time, in the same manner, and to the same extent as any other rule of that House” and that is what we are doing.

The New York Times has a great article on some of the politics involved in the Democrats’ linking of the free trade bill with the economic issues currently plaguing the U.S. According to the article, part of the reason Democrats are trying to regain control of the FTA agreement is that they may be able to use it as a bargaining chip down the road as they consider an Iraq supplemental funding bill. Democrats are hoping to attach some domestic spending measures – an extension of food stamp and unemployment benefits – to the supplemental bill. In their previous attempts to enact these measures, the administration, backed by congressional Republicans, were able to put up a successful blockade.

UPDATE 2: David Sirota provides some evidence that today’s move to delay a vote on the U.S.-Colombia FTA wasn’t because House Democrats oppose it, but because they are afraid that if it came to a vote soon, It wouldn’t have enough support to pass.

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