US Democratic Party leaders on Wednesday said they plan to scupper a September deadline imposed on Congress to approve a free-trade agreement with Colombia, in a growing confrontation with US President George W Bush. ( dpa )
Bush sent the Colombia deal to Congress on Monday by way of a "fast-track" negotiating authority, which forces a yes or no vote on the deal by September, without allowing legislators to make amendments.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who leads the centre-left Democratic majority in opposing the Colombia deal, said that she planned to introduce a rule change Thursday in the lower chamber that would remove the deadline.
"The president took his action. I will take mine," Pelosi said.
The rule change could push a vote on the free-trade deal into next year, when a new president could seek to renegotiate the agreement.
Bush, who signed the free-trade initiative with Colombia 16 months ago, said Monday that failing to approve the deal would risk weakening a key US ally in Latin America and could damage Washington's credibility in the region.
"There is perhaps no more important free-trade agreement in recent memory," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday in a press conference with six other high-level members of the Bush administration.
Colombia, which has battled left-wing rebels and drug traffickers for decades, is easily the largest recipient of US economic and military aid.
Democrats are worried about the frequent slayings of labour union leaders in the country and have sought changes to the free-trade agreement that would require the Colombian government to do more to protect activists.
Democrats have also sought legislation that would help US workers, as a counterweight to the Colombia agreement.
Colombia has already ratified the deal.
Bush sent the trade agreement Monday to Congress in order to force a vote before the two legislative chambers adjourn for the year on September 26. That gives Congress 90 legislative days to schedule a vote, making the final day September 25 - a rule that Pelosi is now seeking to change.