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Flower Growers Jab at Colombia Trade Pact

As House Democrats block action, California commission says agreement process ignores local industry's concerns.

The California Cut Flower Commission expressed serious concern Tuesday over President Bush’s decision to formally seek congressional approval of the U.S. Columbia Free Trade Agreement. A day later, House Democrats appeared to block any trade vote until next year, when a new president could seek to renegotiate the deal.

Kasey Cronquist, the commission’s executive director, said the interests of the domestic cut flower industry and the 10,000 jobs directly linked to it merit more consideration if Colombia’s preferential access to the U.S. market is to be made permanent.

“California growers have endured a significant loss of the domestic market to Colombian flower imports over the last 15 years since the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act went into effect,” the Carpinteria-based Cronquist said in Washington, where he was lobbying lawmakers this week.

“Before trade preferences took effect, California growers were supplying 75 percent to 80 percent of the cut flowers sold in the United States. Today that position is completely the opposite, with the Andean
countries enjoying over 75-80 percent of the market.”

Cronquist said the commission accepted the broader commercial and foreign policy objectives of the trade initiatives and has responded to the changing market conditions with entrepreneurial skill and innovation. But he said the administration’s decision to send the Colombia agreement to Congress without the congressional leadership’s consent insufficiently addressed the concerns of California flower growers.

“Before this agreement is to move in Congress, we hope that the concerns that many lawmakers have with this agreement and the economic concerns of California flower growers and any other adversely impacted U.S. industries will be addressed,” Cronquist said.

On Wednesday, the commission’s concerns apparently were satisfied.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would use a rare procedural option Thursday to block fast-track consideration of the accord with Colombia, a surprise move that escalated an already rancorous election-year battle over jobs, the economy and national security.

"The president took his action," Pelosi said. "I will take mine tomorrow."

Both sides accused the other of obstinacy.

The White House said it repeatedly consulted congressional leaders to ensure the pact’s passage but got no response. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that Pelosi’s move would damage U.S. ties to Colombia, a vital U.S. ally in a region brimming with anti-American forces and drug trafficking. Other officials said it will impair the ability of future presidents to negotiate trade agreements

Democrats say they have reservations about Colombia’s human rights record and want more generous assistance for American workers affected by free trade. Pelosi and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, indicated Wednesday that Bush must first sign a measure to expand aid to workers who lose their jobs because of import competition.

The presidential campaign is playing a role, as well. While Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the presumed Republican nominee, supports the free-trade pact, both Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, oppose it. A top Clinton campaign aide, Mark Penn, was forced to resign last week after it was disclosed he had advised Colombia on ways to promote the accord, which is supported by Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.

The United States and Colombia signed the free trade agreement in November 2006, but congressional approval is required. Colombia’s legislature has already ratified the deal, which replaces and extends existing trade preferences that had been granted to Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru to help them diversify their economies away from cocaine production.

Congress ratified a similar agreement with Peru in December. Bolivia and Ecuador did not negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States.

The California Cut Flower Commission is overseen by the state Department of Food and Agriculture, to promote California-grown cut flowers and foliages.

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