President Obama met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe today, discussing a trade pact that had the full support of President Bush but stalled under opposition from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, congressional Democrats, and labor unions. Bush had pushed for the deal in the face of staunch opposition in Congress, and his administration organized trips to Colombia for U.S. lawmakers to visit with government and business leaders in the hopes of winning their votes. (Democrats, as well as Republicans, traveled there.)
Labor unions remain staunchly opposed to the deal, their main argument being reports of Colombian-military-sanctioned killings of trade unionists, and Pelosi has no plans to bring the agreement to the floor any time soon, according to her office. The safety of Colombian labor leaders needs to be dealt with before the content of an agreement can be ironed out, spokesman Brendan Daly said.
Obama today said a compromise could be reached, but he also signaled concern over labor leaders' safety--hitting a note that critics of the deal were certainly looking for. He waded into the trade issue, which became a focal point of U.S./Colombia relations under Bush, at a hot time for geopolitics in the Americas, with a court-backed overthrow in Honduras having happened over the weekend and with the White House opening relations with Venezuela last week.
The Obama White House has yet to embark on trade areements; those in the works are Panama, South Korea, and Colombia. Panama is expected to be the first one hammered out; after that, we'll see how congressional Democrats handle trade agreements under the new administration. Bush used fast-track authority (an agreement under which Congress votes on trade deals within a certain time frame and does not allow amendments) to push trade agreements through the legislature; Democrats, more averse to/careful about free trade as a party, will likely deal with the agreements in more slowly and carefully.
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