WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said Wednesday that the Bush administration plans to send a free trade agreement with Colombia to Congress in early April with or without Democratic leaders’ support.

This story first appeared in the March 13, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The administration has spent several months courting lawmakers in an effort to garner enough support to get the Colombian free trade deal through Congress before the end of the year. But many Democrats have balked at taking up an election year trade deal that has generated strong opposition because of assassinations of trade unionists and kidnappings in Colombia.

The administration has insisted that the pact move forward this year because there are concerns that the next president, particularly a Democrat, could pick apart or try to renegotiate it.

Congress has 90 days to consider the trade legislation once the administration sends it over under special negotiating rules that require an up-or-down vote and does not allow amendments.

“We are still hoping that the Democratic leadership will work with us on a bipartisan path forward to moving the Colombia free trade agreement expeditiously,” Schwab said at a press briefing. “Given the calendar and given the president’s desire and commitment to see a vote on the Colombia FTA this year, we will be forced to send it up absent that kind of commitment [from Democratic leaders].”

Apparel importers that shipped $419 million worth of products made in Colombia to the U.S. in the past 12 months, and textile producers that export millions of dollars in fabrics and yarns to the country, have urged Congress to pass a bilateral trade deal with Colombia to make the duty free benefits permanent. They are now temporary under an Andean trade pact that needs periodic renewal.

“I think they need to vote on this thing,” said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “This is an important agreement for the economics of the textile and apparel industry…and the entire supply chain, from cotton to consumers, have lined up in support of this agreement. Whenever you have that with trade policy, it tells you it is time to vote ‘yes.'”

Julia Hughes, senior vice president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said her group supports passage, but is concerned that forcing a vote on Capitol Hill is a “risky proposition.”