President Bush is sending U.S. lawmakers a controversial free-trade agreement with Colombia. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, the move forces Congress to vote on the agreement within 90 legislative days.

President Bush says he is sending the Colombia free-trade agreement to Congress because it is time to level the playing field for American workers and safeguard U.S. security interests in the hemisphere.

"This agreement will advance America's national security interests in a critical region," President Bush said. "It will strengthen a courageous ally in our hemisphere. It will help America's economy and America's workers at a vital time. It deserves bipartisan support from the United States Congress."

Mr. Bush says the need is too urgent and the stakes to national security too high to allow the year to end without a vote on the deal. The president's action forces a vote on the free-trade agreement within 90 legislative days.

Most Colombian exports already enter the United States duty free. The deal makes permanent Colombia's preferential access to the U.S. market, while eliminating tariffs on 80 percent of American exports to Colombia; including aircraft and auto parts, beef, cotton, wheat, soybeans, and fruit.

President Bush says approving the deal is the best way the United States can demonstrate its support for Colombia at a time when Bogota is standing against the anti-American rhetoric of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

"People throughout the hemisphere are watching to see what the United States will do," he said. "If Congress fails to approve this agreement, it would not only abandon a brave ally, it would send a signal throughout the region that America can not be counted on to support its friends."

Many congressional Democrats oppose the free-trade agreement because of concerns about Colombia's human-rights record.

President Bush says Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has addressed the issues of U.S. lawmakers by demobilizing tens-of-thousands of paramilitary fighters and appointing an independent prosecutor to pursue cases involving attacks against trade unionists.

"President Uribe has done everything asked of him. While Colombia still works to improve, the progress is undeniable. And it is worthy of our support," the president said.

The president is sending this free-trade agreement to Congress one day after Senator Hillary Clinton's top presidential campaign strategist, Mark Penn, stepped down after he met with Colombia's ambassador to discuss advancing the trade deal.

Clinton publicly opposes the agreement. A White House spokesman says he knows of no contact between the administration and lobbyist Penn, whose firm represents the Colombian government.