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US-Colombia Trade Agreement Delayed Indefinitely

The U.S. House of Representatives, in an election-year challenge to President Bush, has put off indefinitely a vote to ratify a free-trade agreement with Colombia, a key U.S. ally in Latin America.

The House, which is controlled by the opposition Democratic Party, voted by a 224 to 195 margin Thursday to eliminate a requirement that Congress must vote on the controversial trade deal within 90 days, in which the House is in session.

Republican Party leaders said the vote is likely to kill the trade deal, which was backed by American business leaders but strongly opposed by U.S. labor unions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the agreement with Colombia could be revived later, but that it would have no chance of passage if it came up for a vote now.

She blamed the White House for failing to consult with the legislative branch, as is usual on such agreements, and said she warned Mr. Bush earlier this week about the consequences of pressing for a vote.

The president said in a statement that failure to ratify the trade agreement would damage the U.S. economy, national security and relations with an important ally.

Colombian Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata, however, said he was optimistic that an agreement between the White House and the legislative branch on the trade deal will eventually be reached.

Many congressional Democrats say they oppose the agreement because of Colombia's often-criticized record on human-rights issues and labor-union activity. Bush administration officials, however, say failing to adopt the agreement will do serious harm to U.S. credibility in Latin America.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement that Colombia is making significant progress in protecting unionists and reducing labor violence, as well as in fighting terrorism. She said President Bush sees Colombia as one of America's strongest friends.

If approved, the deal would eliminate tariffs on more than 80 percent of U.S. exports to Colombia, and make permanent the Andean nation's preferential access to the U.S. market.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.