Bush Pushes Free Trade with Colombia; Clinton Strategist Caught in the Middle

President Bush sent over a controversial Colombian Free Trade Agreement to Congress on Monday in an attempt to expand his economic free trade legacy and extend a hand to one of the United States strongest South American allies. The deal was put into the “Fast Track”, a method of approving legislation created as part of the Trade Act of 1992. Under these rules, Congress will have only 90 days to act after receiving the bill from White House. The countdown began Monday.

This proposal comes just one day after former senior strategist for the Clinton campaign Mark Penn resigned from his post in the campaign after meeting with Colombian officials to help secure ways to ensure the trade agreement is passed.

The United States-Colombian Free Trade Agreement would lower Colombian import taxes on American goods, thus primarily leveling the playing field in trading with the South American country, as a majority of Colombian goods are duty free or contain very minimal duties with the trade agreements currently in place. The U.S. stands to benefit more than Colombia from the agreement, however there are potential downsides.

Democrats, including both front running candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are opposed to the agreement. They claim it is rewarding a nation who’s government has yet to squelch the violence revolving around trade unions and extremist para-military legions. Bush feels the country, under the leadership of Alvaro Uribe, is doing its best to calm the violence. He also feels Colombia faces many of the same conflicts as us when it comes to fighting tyranny and terror, with threats coming from bordering Venezuela and the rule of Hugo Chavez, and a Marxist group within Colombia known as FARC.

“President Uribe has stood strong against these threats. And he has done so with the assurance of America’s support, because his fight against tyranny and terror is a fight that we share,” Bush said Monday. “If Congress fails to approve this agreement, it would not only abandon a brave ally, it would send a signal throughout the region that America cannot be counted on to support its friends.”

The upside of the trade agreement is that it will allow access of the Colombian market to farmers and business owners free of the very high export tariffs they currently face, which is to the tone of up to 35%. This could provide thousands of new jobs for the American economy and could provide up to $1.1 billion in increased revenue per year to manufacturers, according to some experts. This potential increase in revenues and job creations is very desperately needed in our current economic downturn. However, some Democrats feel the opposite could happen; we could lose even more jobs to Colombia.

The biggest loser in all of this: Mark Penn, CEO of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller who was to be paid $300,000 by Colombian officials, resigned as Hillary Clinton’s senior strategist after it was uncovered he met with Colombia lawmakers on March 31 to discuss ensuring the passage of Free Trade Agreement. After apologizing for the meeting, and calling it an “error in judgement”, Mark Penn was then fired by the Colombian government for the apology, with Colombia citing it showed a “lack of respect” for their country.

With the legislation on the “fast track”, the House and Senate will have a limited period of time to debate and draft the final bill. Some Democrats feel it will be dead on arrival due to this. Regardless, Congress will have to make a decision on the legislation before they break for the summer campaigning season.
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