WASHINGTON — Defying the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday the House will change its rules to avoid a required vote this year on a free-trade agreement with Colombia.
Pelosi, D-Calif., said the change would remove the timetable that says Congress must take up trade bills within 90 legislative days after they are received from the White House. She intended to bring the rule proposal to the full House on Thursday.
"The president took action" in submitting the deal Tuesday, she said. "I will take mine tomorrow."
The Colombia deal was a leading topic as President Bush and congressional leaders discussed the economy and other issues at the White House Wednesday afternoon. Pelosi, emerging from the meeting, said their message to the president was that the main concern must be the living standards of Americans and they could not consider the free trade pact "unless we address the economic insecurity of America's working families."
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Pelosi was trying to do something "unprecedented in the history of negotiating trade deals in announcing that Democrats would change the rules in the middle of the game."
Removing the timetable sets an awful precedent "for all future administrations, both Republicans and Democrats, because countries will not be able to have faith in our word when we're negotiating trade deals," Perino said.
The White House says helping an important ally in South America is in the political and security interests of the United States. Perino accused Democrats of trying to kill the deal "without having to have their fingerprints on it."
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement that Pelosi's proposal "would be cheating." What nation, he asked, "would conclude a treaty with the United States knowing that Congress can change the rules of the game after it is negotiated?"
Most Democrats, backed by organized labor and some human rights groups, are against the Colombia deal. They have cited violence against union organizers in Colombia and have made clear they will not consider further agreements until legislation is passed to expand current programs to help American workers displaced by foreign trade.
"Our focus on Colombia is the continuing violence against trade unionists," said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director. He said he thought Pelosi's action effectively would stop any action on the agreement this year.`
The administration says the Colombian government has made significant strides in reducing violence. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, in a letter to Pelosi last week, said the agreement "will send a clear message of support to a strong democratic ally, particularly given the continuing assault on the government of Colombia by narco-terrorists and the recent provocative actions by an increasingly aggressive Venezuela."
They also pointed out that the agreement would help U.S. companies with exports. While Colombia already enjoys duty-free status on almost all its exports to the United States, the agreement would reduce and eventually eliminate tariffs on U.S. shipments to Colombia.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the rule change would apply only to Colombia. Under trade rules that expired last year but still applied to the Colombia deal, the House has 60 legislative days to take up the agreement after the president sends it to Congress. The Senate has 30 days after that to act.
Pelosi said at a news conference that if legislation approving the trade deal were considered now, it would lose. "What message would that send" to the Colombian people?
She denied that the rule change doomed action on the agreement this year, saying that "depends on the good faith in which we conduct these negotiations."
The administration has talked to Democrats about ways to help American workers. The House last year passed legislation to expand a program that provides financial aid and training to people who lose jobs as a result of trade. But the White House threatened a veto and the Senate never took it up.
Pelosi insisted that the House's right to determine its own rules overrides any requirements that Congress take up a measure within a certain time.
In a display of urgency, the White House hastily called several Cabinet secretaries to the press briefing room Wednesday so they could restate the case to reporters.
Rice said there was no more important trade agreement in recent memory. "What will it say if the United States turns its back now on Colombia?" she said.
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the House's maneuvering was "unprecedented and unfair by any definition." Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez called the move "profoundly disappointing."
There was dismay in Colombia among supporters of the agreement. Hernando Gomez, the former chief of negotiations for Colombia's trade ministry and current president of the think tank Council on Private Competition said: "I don't see any reason for further delay. People must remember that traditionally U.S. policy toward Colombia has been bipartisan."
"The credibility of the U.S. is at stake here" if it was to further complicate a trade deal with its closest ally in Latin America, he said.
Associated Press writer Toby Muse in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.