(Host) President Bush is forcing Congress to vote on a free trade agreement with Colombia.
Freshman Senators like Vermont’s Bernie Sanders are spearheading opposition to the deal.
Matt Laslo reports from Capitol Hill.
(Laslo) Bush says Democrats were stalling on a Colombia free trade deal. So he sent them his own bill.
A president is allowed to "fast track" trade bills to Congress. Once he sends the bill, it must be voted on within 90 days.
Democratic leaders in both chambers say Bush didn’t consult with them, so they are mounting opposition to the deal. One of their main sources of support is first-term lawmakers.
(Dorgan) "They are a great addition to the United States Senate, with a fresh view and a fresh perspective on these trade agreements."
(Laslo) That’s Byron Dorgan. He is the chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee and a leading voice of opposition to Bush’s trade policy. Most freshmen in the Democratic caucus ran campaigns opposing free trade agreements, and Dorgan says that means a lot.
(Dorgan) "I think you are gonna see a substantial difference on the floor of the Senate about these trade agreements."
(Laslo) In 2007, Democratic leaders oversaw the passage of a free trade deal with Peru. Out of 10 freshmen senators, seven opposed the bill. Independent Bernie Sanders was one of them.
(Sanders) "And it is absolutely wrong that our workers have to compete against people who make 50 cents an hour."
(Laslo) As of January, the U.S. trade deficit was $58 billion. Sanders says that is largely because of trade deals. But he says fighting free trade is hard for lawmakers of any party.
(Sanders) "Every member of the Senate is gonna have to have the courage to stand up to big money interests, these large multinational corporations who like our current trade policy because they get cheap labor abroad. And I hope my colleagues understand that their job is to stand up for the middle class."
(Laslo) U.S. goods exported to Colombia face high tariffs while Colombian goods are imported duty free. Administration officials say that is unfair and the new agreement would change that. Christopher Wenk is the international policy director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
(Wenk) "Literally for the past 20 years we have had a one-way trading relationship with Colombia."
(Laslo) Wenk admits the current political climate makes passage of the Colombian deal hard. Both Democratic presidential candidates oppose it, and there is growing Democratic opposition to free trade, in large part due to the freshmen. Analysts think this could be one of Bush’s last major battles, and Democrats suspect he will lose.
For VPR News, I’m Matt Laslo on Capitol Hill.