President Bush and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, intensified an increasingly personal fight over a stalled trade deal with Colombia on Monday, trading accusations over who was best protecting the interests of American workers.
Bush, still angry about Pelosi’s surprise decision to rescind a requirement that the House take up the trade deal within 60 days, called the action a snub to a strategic ally in South America. And Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. canceled a meeting with the speaker on other economic initiatives that had been scheduled for Monday.
“This free trade agreement is in our national interests, yet that bill is dead unless the speaker schedules a definite vote,” the president said. “And it’s not in our country’s interest that we stiff an ally like Colombia and that we don’t encourage our goods and services to be sold overseas.”
Pelosi fired back, hurriedly scheduling a rare Monday meeting with reporters to suggest that the president was putting his trade agenda ahead of Americans’ economic troubles while pursuing stale economic policy.
“For seven long years, the president’s failed economic plan has stiffed the American people,” Pelosi told reporters.
Pelosi said she was willing to bring the trade pact to the House floor for a vote “under the proper circumstance,” but there appeared to be little movement toward finding a resolution.
“First, we need to address the worsening economy in our country,” she said.
Democrats see the trade deal as a potential bargaining chip with the administration in a push for more economic aid like an extension of unemployment benefits, assistance for workers displaced by trade agreements and perhaps an expansion of a children’s health insurance program.
Pelosi, who worked closely with Paulson in developing the economic stimulus legislation that led to the soon-to-be-mailed tax rebate checks, talked with the Treasury secretary at the end of a White House session last week. But the speaker’s office was notified over the weekend that Paulson would not be available for the meeting on the economy scheduled for Monday.
The strain over the trade pact bubbled to the surface last week after the president told the speaker he was submitting the agreement against her advice as well as that of Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. Though she advised him again to hold back on the agreement, the president said he was moving ahead.
“The speaker and her team had been dragging their heels on scheduling a vote,” Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said Monday. “And while the president did not want to have to send up the bill, and he did so reluctantly, it was only because if we look at the calendar and count backwards, we were running out of legislative days.”
In response, Pelosi won party-line approval Thursday of her request to eliminate the 60-day deadline for consideration of the pact, infuriating the White House and leaving the proposal’s fate uncertain.