WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thwarted a key Bush administration initiative on Thursday when she led an unprecedented vote to delay action on the Colombian free trade agreement.

The House voted 224 to 195, largely along party lines, to eliminate a 90-day timetable for considering the trade pact with Colombia. It gives the Democrats, who hold the majorities in the House and Senate, the opportunity to put off a vote until at least after the presidential election in November.

President Bush condemned the action.

“By changing the rules for how it considers legislation to implement trade agreements, the House has severed a bond of trust between the executive branch and the Congress, and with our trading partners, that has served our nation well for decades,” Bush said. “In order to negotiate trade agreements, we empower our trade representatives with the promise that Congress will consider trade agreements with a timely up-or-down vote. By breaking this bond, Democrats have undercut not just this administration, but future administrations, as well.”

The Colombia agreement was negotiated under trade promotion authority legislation that requires Congress to vote within 90 days of receiving an accord from the White House without the ability to amend it. President Bush submitted the agreement to lawmakers on Tuesday, demanding its approval. The House changed the law based on a never-before-used provision that allows Congress to override the rules and remove the timetable.

“The House took action today to reassert its authority and address the economic insecurities of the American people,” Pelosi (D., Calif. ) said during a news conference. “We must focus first on the issue of jobs here at home.”

Pelosi framed the House vote as a power shift for Democrats. “What happened today is that the leverage came back to the American people,” she said.

Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York oppose the deal. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, supports it.

Democrats have argued that the Colombian government has failed to do enough to halt assassinations and kidnappings of trade unionists. The administration has countered that the government has sharply reduced the number of killings, put reforms in place and is an ally in the region against Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez is a vocal opponent of the U.S. and has instituted nationalist policies.

This story first appeared in the April 11, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The rule change also dampens prospects for Congressional consideration of trade deals with South Korea and Panama.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab accused Democrats of “moving the goalposts.”

“The decision to hold the vote today, and the vote today, are really irresponsible,” Schwab told reporters. “The House Democratic leadership has now slapped around a major U.S. ally, one of our most important allies in Latin America.”

Organized labor, which has urged the Democrats to defeat the Colombia trade deal because of the country’s human rights violations, welcomed the action.

“There is no question that this was a good move,” said Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE. “Clearly, it was a bold move by the Democratic Congress to take it off the table.”

Delaying a vote will not directly affect apparel importers, who shipped $419 million worth of products made in Colombia to the U.S. in the past 12 months, because they still receive duty free benefits under a regional trade preference program that needs periodic renewal.

“I think that most companies recognize they need the FTA in order to guarantee the benefits will remain in place,” said Julia Hughes, senior vice president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.

However, Hughes noted that Pelosi and other Democrats have indicated there might be some room for compromise, such as recent remarks about implementing an overhaul of a federal program that helps retrain workers who lose their jobs because of international trade.

To that end, Pelosi said, “I have said to the administration over and over again it will be very difficult to pass a trade bill until we put forth a positive economic agenda for the American people.”

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