04/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lobby For Colombia Trade Pact Casts A Wide Net

There have been all-expense paid trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress, featuring coffee tastings and dinner at a posh restaurant inside an old Spanish fort. The Colombian president has visited Washington to make personal appeals. Major corporations like WalMart and Citigroup are taking up the cause. And former Clinton administration officials have landed lucrative lobbying contracts.

This barrage of activity is over the trade pact that cost Mark Penn, a top adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his job over the weekend. Mr. Penn had been working for a presidential primary candidate opposed to the trade deal with Colombia, while also running a public relations firm hired by the Colombian government to promote it.

The debate has been quietly brewing ever since the Bush administration finished negotiating the pact to ease trade restrictions in late 2006. Human rights groups and labor leaders have urged Congress to put off considering the deal or to reject it outright, citing paramilitary violence against labor activists in Colombia.

The behind-the- scenes dispute has now escalated to a classic Washington boil in recent weeks after President Bush, growing impatient with Democrats on Capitol Hill, decided to send the agreement to Congress anyway, an action he announced formally on Monday.

"The need for this agreement is too urgent -- the stakes for our national security are too high -- to allow this year to end without a vote," Mr. Bush said.

He and others cited the need to support Colombia, which does $18 billion of trade with the United States annually and is battling leftist rebels that Colombian officials assert have received financing from the Venezuelan government.

To help make its case, Colombia had already hired at least three firms on Capitol Hill, in addition to the work by Mr. Penn's firm, Burson-Marsteller, paying out from $15,000 to $40,000 a month. Collectively the Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to firms that have negotiated or lobbied on behalf of the deal.

They include the Glover Park Group, the fast-growing firm set up by former Clinton White House aides including Joe Lockhart, who was chief spokesman for the president. (Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton's campaign communications director, was a partner at the firm but has taken a leave of absence.)

The firm has approached more than a dozen members of Congress, focusing on moderate Democrats who the lobbyists believe might be persuaded to disregard their party leaders and vote in favor of the deal.

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