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Bush: Trade Deal With Colombia Is In US Interest

By DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe renewed their push on Saturday for Congress to approve a free-trade deal before lawmakers leave town to campaign for re-election.

“It’s in our economic interest that we continue to open up markets in our neighborhood, particularly with a nation that is growing like yours,” Bush told Uribe in the Rose Garden. “And yet we can’t get a vote out of Congress. I’ve been asking the Democrat leadership in Congress for a vote, and they’ve consistently blocked the vote.”

Congressional Democrats say they are delaying votes on trade deals involving Colombia, Panama and South Korea until the Bush administration resolves questions about the impact on U.S. jobs and other issues. But time is running out on the legislative calendar.

The Colombian pact was negotiated in late 2006. Bush urged lawmakers to reconsider their opposition, but seemed resigned that it might not happen on his watch. Bush called Uribe an “honest man” who has responded to U.S. concerns about crime in Colombia and has been successful in reducing homicides, kidnappings and terrorist attacks.

“What happens in Colombia can affect life here in the United States,” Bush said. “You’ve got a strong supporter here. And after I leave office, it’s going to be very important for the next president and the next Congress to stand squarely by your side.”

Uribe said a free-trade agreement would help increase U.S. investment in Colombia and provide jobs for people as an alternative to engaging in terrorism, illegal drug-trafficking and violence.

“Free trade agreement for us is the possibility to give certainty to investors for them to come to Colombia, and the more the investors come to Colombia, the less difficult for us to defeat terrorism,” Uribe said. “Investment is the real alternative to illicit crops. Investment is the real possibility for our people to find high-quality jobs.”

Later in the evening, Uribe was greeted at the North Portico by Bush and first lady Laura Bush, who had invited the Colombian president and other guests for a dinner of gazpacho, petite rib-eye steaks and coconut cake.

In recent months, Bush has tried new ways to bolster his free-trade agenda. In May, a concrete mixer, crates of cauliflower, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and chunks of cheese were displayed on the White House lawn as examples of a lopsided tariff structure the U.S. has with those three countries.

A White House event in July was billed as a celebration of the day in 1810 when Colombia declared its independence from Spain, but the main message was trade.

Union leaders are not sold on the plan.

On Friday, the Teamsters, which represents 1.4 million workers, protested Uribe’s visit, saying he was trying to promote a trade deal that threatens American jobs. The Teamsters and members of other unions and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch held signs and passed out fliers in front of the National Press Building.

With little hope the Colombian deal will be approved before Congress recesses for the November elections, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said that if there is a lame-duck session after the elections, lawmakers could ratify the agreement then.

“In light of recent divisive statements and rash actions by some Latin American leaders, ratification of the agreement would also send a strong signal to the region that the United States stands by its friends,” said Lugar, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, expelled the U.S. ambassador this month, accusing the diplomat of conspiring to oust him.

Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, who claims the U.S. was behind a failed 2002 coup against him, quickly followed suit. “That’s enough … from you, Yankees,” Chavez said, using a barnyard expletive.

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