President prods Congress to pass free-trade deals

MIAMI -- Trying to jump-start his stalled trade agenda, President Bush pleaded with lawmakers Friday to pass free-trade pacts with four nations, and warned against protectionism taking root in America.

In Miami, Bush urged Congress to approve free-trade agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia in Latin America plus another with South Korea. The deals face uphill battles given five consecutive years of record U.S. trade deficits that critics say played a major role in the loss of more than 3 million manufacturing jobs since Bush took office in 2001.

Bush said he was disturbed that trade agreements have been passing by only slim margins in Congress. He said he also was troubled that when discussing trade as he travels across the nation, there is a trend toward economic isolationism and talk that free trade is bad for U.S. workers.

"One congressman offered his prediction if the agreements pass: U.S. college graduates will increasingly see a future in flipping hamburgers," Bush said. "That's the kind of rhetoric we're dealing with."

Bush said the agreements would level the playing field for businesses, workers and farmers in the United States and lead to more jobs for Americans. He said they would ease poverty, strengthen forces of freedom and democracy in Latin America and "counter the false populism" promoted by some nations -- a veiled reference to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

Democrats said their concerns about the deals include a need for more protections for civil, environmental and worker rights in the beneficiary countries. And they said Bush has presided over a record on Latin America that has contributed to destabilization and a rise in anti-American sentiment.

"The president's last-minute leadership on Latin America is another case of too little, too late," said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Alejandro Miyar. "As with everything this administration pushes, the plans are half baked."

As he routinely does in Florida, Bush also called for a free and Democratic Cuba. That prompted a standing ovation from the crowd. One woman shouted, "Viva Bush!"

Referring to Cuban President Fidel Castro, Bush said, "The long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing an end. As Cuba enters a period of transition, nations throughout the hemisphere and the world must insist on free speech, free assembly. They must insist that the prisoners in Cuba be free and ultimately we must insist on free and competitive elections."

Since Democrats took control of Congress in January, it has not approved any free trade agreements that the administration has negotiated, and it has allowed Bush's authority to negotiate future deals under expedited procedures to expire. Moreover, polls show support for free trade slipping among American voters, even Republicans who traditionally have strongly backed open trade.

"We'll help those who've lost a job because of trade," Bush said. "But it's important for our country to understand that trade yields prosperity, and prosperity means people will more likely be able to find work."

While the agreements with Peru and Panama are considered likely to pass, the deal with Colombia is thought to be in trouble because of human rights issues. The trade agreement with South Korea, meanwhile, is being strongly opposed because of barriers Seoul erected to keep out U.S.-made autos and American beef.

The administration already has reached agreement with Democrats to include tougher language on protecting worker rights and the environment in the trade deals now pending before Congress.

White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has been trying to find ways to help workers displaced by foreign competition get trade adjustment assistance, which offers education and training needed for other jobs.

"We hear lots of reports about, for example, the loss of manufacturing jobs, which has been a 40-year trend in our economy," Fratto said. "The overwhelming majority of manufacturing jobs have been lost not because of trade, but because of productivity growth -- because of improvements in technology."

Before his speech, Bush met privately with Cuban-American community leaders for about 40 minutes.

Earlier in the day, Bush attended a GOP fundraiser at the Pinellas Park, Fla., waterfront home of Brent Sembler, the son of Mel Sembler, a former U.S. ambassador to Italy and a longtime GOP moneymaker. The small affair in a neighborhood of large stucco homes with red tiled roofs raised an estimated $1 million for the Republican National Committee.

From Florida, Bush flew to Texas for a weekend stay at his ranch.