Colombia trade deal splits Clintons

Updated: 2008-04-09 08:04

WASHINGTON -- The presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that her husband, the former president, supports a free trade agreement with Colombia that she strenuously opposes.

The acknowledgment adds new hurdles to the New York senator's bid to woo Democratic voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere who believe free trade agreements have eliminated thousands of US jobs. On Sunday, she demoted her chief campaign strategist for his role in promoting the Colombia pact.

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton listens during a hearing on the state of the war in Iraq at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington April 8, 2008. [Agencies]

Hillary Clinton told union activists Tuesday she would do everything in her power to defeat the Colombia Free Trade Agreement now before Congress.

Her campaign spokesman, Jay Carson, said in response to a query from The Associated Press that the senator's opposition is "clear and firm." He added: "Like other married couples who disagree on issues from time to time, she disagrees with her husband on this issue. President Clinton has been public about his support for Colombia's request for US trade preferences since 2000."

Bill Clinton has been his wife's most prominent campaign surrogate and advocate for months.

A high point of his presidency was passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement, which his wife now criticizes at virtually every campaign stop. White House records show that as first lady Hillary Clinton attended several meetings designed to build congressional support for NAFTA in the early 1990s. She says she had reservations about the pact at the time, and made her feelings known in such gatherings.

Speaking about the Colombia trade deal Tuesday to a meeting of the Communication Workers of America, she said: "As I have said for months, I oppose the deal, I have spoken out against the deal, I will vote against the deal and I will do everything I can to urge the Congress to reject the Colombia free trade agreement."

On Sunday, Mark Penn left his post as top strategist for Clinton's campaign after it was reported that he had met with Colombia's ambassador to the United States to discuss passage of the agreement. Colombia was a client of Penn's large public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller.

Many labor unions, including the CWA, oppose such trade deals, saying they displace US jobs and encourage abuses of workers and the environment in other countries.

As president, Bill Clinton's support of trade agreements with Mexico, Canada, China and other nations often put him at odds with fellow Democrats and labor leaders who backed a more protectionist approach. Clinton argued that Democrats should support lower barriers to trade because the nation, on balance, would benefit.

Many nonpartisan economists agree.

In 2005, the former president was paid $800,000 by Gold Service International, a Bogota-based business development group, for four days of appearances in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. The group supports, among other things, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Hillary Clinton's Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, noted his opposition to the Colombia deal Tuesday when he spoke to the CWA group moments after Clinton left the stage. He said he opposes the treaty "because when organizing workers puts an organizer's life at risk, as it does in Colombia, it makes a mockery of our labor protections."

President Bush on Monday sent the proposed Colombia deal to Congress, which has 90 days to ratify or reject it. The administration says it would help the United States by eliminating high barriers for US exports to Colombia. Most Colombian products enter the United States duty free under existing trade preference laws, the administration says.

Obama did not mention Penn in his 25-minute speech to CWA activists. But in a conference call arranged by his campaign, Teamsters President James Hoffa called on Clinton to cut all ties with Penn, who continues to advise her campaign.

"This latest issue with Mark Penn really hurts her credibility," especially on trade issues, said Hoffa, who supports Obama.

In a separate conference call, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson likened Penn to a newspaper editor who "plays an important role but isn't in charge" of the paper.

Earlier this week, aides said both Hillary and Bill Clinton were angry upon hearing of Penn's meeting with the Colombia's ambassador, which proved deeply embarrassing to the campaign.

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