The fight over the US-Colombia free trade agreement escalated dramatically on Wednesday, when congressional leaders said they would seek to delay indefinitely a vote on the controversial deal.
By FT Reporters
If the move is endorsed by the House on Thursday, it would mark the first time that Congress has stalled the 90-day “fast-track” timetable under which most significant trade deals have been ratified in the US since the 1970s.
Charles Rangel, chairman of the ways and means committee, which oversees trade, said the action was designed to allow more time for discussion and avoid the “embarrassment” of voting down a treaty with “one of our closest friends and allies”.
But a US trade official suggested that the move could set a dangerous precedent and more broadly undermine US trade policy.
“Everybody in the world can choose who they want to sit down and talk to,” the official told the FT, suggesting American “credibility” was at stake.
The decision highlights the unease within the Democratic party over trade. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential hopefuls, have vowed to re-examine trade policy and oppose the Colombia FTA.
Nonetheless, House leaders appear to have calculated that delaying a vote could prove less costly than overseeing the first defeat of a free trade agreement in Congress since “fast-track” rules were established more than 30 years ago.
The Bush administration angered Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday when it sent the Colombia FTA for consideration without the consent of the House leadership, which was itself an unprecedented move.
The Colombia FTA was signed in 2006 and would lock in preferences already enjoyed by the country’s exporters in accessing US markets. It would open Colombian markets to US exporters.
“What we hope is that Congress and the presidency can work together to get the clock going again as soon as possible,” said Carolina Barco, Colombia’s ambassador to the US.
Reporting by James Politi, Daniel Dombey, Daniel Pimlott, Naomi Mapstone and Andrew Ward in Washington