The United States Senate voted Thursday to extend expiring trade preferences that allow Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia to send most products to the U.S. duty-free. The ten month extension, through the end of 2008, was approved without objection.
The measure, which was already approved by the House, now goes to President George W. Bush for his signature. The Bush administration says it supports the measure but insists that in the coming months expects Congress to approve the free trade agreement with Colombia, a crucial ally of Washington in South America. "A strong relationship with Latin America is in the best interest of Americans and our economy, as well as the economies and cultures of these key Latin American nations", said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. Congressional action this week relieves pressure on lawmakers to consider the separate free-trade agreement with Colombia, which Democratic House leaders oppose. Free trade agreements, stigmatized in the US as loss of jobs, in an electoral year are difficult to be considered plus the fact Democrats question Colombia's human rights record. Congress late last year approved a free-trade deal with Peru. Trade agreements are also pending with Panama and South Korea. Baucus renewed his pledge to pursue legislation to extend benefits to American workers fired because their factory moved overseas or because of import competition. The Andean preferences were scheduled to expire Friday, after Congress passed short-term extensions in each of the last two years. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, had objected that Ecuador and Bolivia don't deserve to keep their preferences because they haven't agreed to negotiate a free-trade deal or resolve disputes with U.S. investor. US Congress enacted the program in 1991 with the goal of reducing illicit narcotics production in the Andean region by promoting legitimate industries. US imports from the region have grown from 4.9 billion in 1991 to 22.5 billion US dollars in 2006. Congress estimates that as many as 2 million jobs in the Andean region may be dependent on the act.