Pelosi Seizes Trade Agenda

Posted April 9, 2008 at 6:48pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) power play Wednesday to gut President Bush’s “fast-track” authority on the Colombia free-trade agreement and assert control over the deal’s future set off a political firestorm from Republicans but quickly united Democrats on both sides of the issue.

House Republicans expressed outrage, with Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) accusing Pelosi of “cheating” and warning of long-term repercussions against the United States in future trade negotiations.

“Any vote to delay the consideration of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement would violate the spirit of the law and undermine our ability to create more American jobs,” Boehner said. “Let me be clearer: it would be cheating. … Worse, such an action would wreak havoc on our international trade commitments and any future attempts to negotiate any agreement with a foreign nation.”

But Pelosi made it clear that she, not the president, would be in charge of when the Colombia pact would come to the floor, and tied it to broader negotiations over stimulating the economy.

“We have come together on many bipartisan agreements on how to inject demand and vitality into our economy. We would hope that some of those initiatives would be acceptable to the president, funded and signed into law … and only then could we consider the merits of a Colombia free trade agreement,” she said after a meeting at the White House.

Pelosi will have the House vote today on a rule change that would strip fast-track rules from a Colombia deal that would have guaranteed a vote within 60 legislative days.

The Bush administration complained vociferously in several press events and in direct calls to Democratic Members, warning of dire consequences if the agreement were to fail and complaining that Pelosi was taking an unprecedented step to thwart an up-or-down vote.

“The procedural maneuvering that we are seeing is both unprecedented and unfair, by any definition,” U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said. Schwab said that the agreement had been reached with Colombia more than 500 days ago and that the Bush administration had held hundreds of meetings with House Members seeking to address their concerns.

But the unexpected and bold action by Pelosi quickly united Democrats on both sides of the issue. Supporters of the trade agreement warned that unless it is delayed, it would fail on the House floor because of Bush’s actions.

Democrats charged that the administration never offered meaningful provisions to address labor’s concerns about violence against union members in Colombia and to address the loss of jobs in the United States.

Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) rejected the premise that overriding fast-track authority would harm the country’s ability to negotiate future trade deals. “I sure doubt it because every country that negotiates with us comes out on top,” she said. “I’m sure every country would want to get in on a deal like that. We don’t do a thing to protect our own workers.”

House Rules Committee ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) called the maneuver “unprecedented” because previous rules changes affecting trade agreements did not “basically ignore the clock.”

“This has never ever been done before in the 34-year history” of fast-track rules, he said. It is “absolutely outrageous” to suggest that the White House has not been working with Democratic leaders on a final trade agreement.

But Democrats said the administration’s tough stands jamming the Democrats on unrelated issues had also soured them on working with the administration.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who has 25,000 residents of Colombian descent in her district, said she is conflicted over the issue and would like to see an agreement.

“I’m getting it from both sides,” she said.

But she said Bush showed “incredibly poor judgment” to send the trade bill up at a time when the economy is struggling and without accommodating Democratic leaders.

“Their my-way-or-the-highway approach on everything else has done them absolutely no good on Colombia,” she said. She predicted that unless the administration offers significant concessions to Democratic priorities, the Colombian deal won’t reach the floor.

“A little cooperation on the things our leadership cares about would be good,” she said, citing the sour taste from vetoes of stem-cell research, appropriations bills and children’s health insurance.

Meanwhile, Republicans sought to rally support from the business community, aiming to get groups to score the vote on the new House rule as a key vote. Democratic supporters of Colombia warned the business community that would be counterproductive.

“They are going to make people who are friendly, who want to make this happen, have a sour taste in their mouth,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a supporter of the Colombia pact. Meeks backed Pelosi’s move, saying it “is actually going to save it instead of kill it” because it would have been defeated on the floor otherwise.

“It means we need to have more consultations,” Meeks said.

“All of the advice the administration got was it was a tough sell with the speaker’s imprimatur,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). “Without the speaker, it’s an impossible sell.”

Davis said the Bush administration should have realized that no vote on the trade pact was preferable to a “no” vote.

And House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who has backed a Colombia pact, said the administration had failed to address Democratic concerns on violence against union leaders and said he supported the speaker’s decision, which he said would prevent what would be an embarrassing defeat for the pact on the House floor.

“They have not offered anything other than … trips to Cartagena for Members,” Rangel said. “What have they done to promote this bill except to say they want it?”

Rangel, who has pushed for an extension of unemployment benefits, said the administration needs to offer “anything that shows a sensitivity to millions of Americans who are out of work.”

The administration has repeatedly complained publicly and privately that Democrats have never told them what it would take to get them to sign on to a deal, and felt squeezed because unless they sent it up this week they would not have been assured of a vote this year.

Now, they aren’t even assured of that.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.