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Bush challenges Congress on free trade pact

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  • NEW: Top Democrats says action jeopardizes pact's chances of passing
  • Sen. McCain backs deal; Sens. Clinton and Obama oppose pact
  • Bush says trade pact with Colombia would advance U.S. "security interests"
  • Move forces vote on pact within 90 working days
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Monday moved to force a vote on a controversial free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia that Democrats oppose.

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President Bush calls on Congress to vote on the Colombia free trade deal within 90 days.

During an appearance at the White House, Bush said he signed a letter giving Congress 90 working days to vote on the agreement, which would allow goods to move between the United States and Colombia without being taxed.

Bush said the agreement would "advance America's national security interests in a critical region" and "strengthen a courageous ally in our hemisphere," as well as help the U.S. economy.

The administration signed the agreement almost a year and a half ago and had been working with congressional leaders to schedule a vote on the pact.

Bush said he decided to force Congress to take up the measure because the "need for this agreement is too urgent; the stakes for our national security are too high to allow this year to end without a vote." Video Watch Bush call Colombia a 'brave ally' »

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and and Charlie Rangel, D-New York, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, called Bush's move "counterproductive" and said it jeopardized the chances that the bill would pass.

"A successful trade agenda depends on a joint partnership between the Congress and the administration, where consultation is the norm, not the exception," the two said in a joint statement. "The president's disregard toward a co-equal branch of government serves only to work against the long-term interests of the United States and Colombia."

Last week, Pelosi, a California Democrat, indicated she would oppose the bill unless it is accompanied by protections for U.S. workers. She did not "recommend" Bush send the bill to Congress, she said.

And the Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, warned Bush was setting up the agreement to fail.

"Many Democrats continue to have serious concerns about an agreement that creates the highest level of economic integration with a country where workers and their families are routinely murdered and subjected to violence and intimidation for seeking to exercise their most basic economic rights. And the perpetrators of the violence have near total impunity," he said in a statement shortly after Bush spoke.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the agreement in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal on Monday.

She said the free trade bill "could strengthen the competitiveness of U.S. workers; support a democratic ally on the cusp of achieving lasting national success; weaken those who would sow instability and autocracy in our hemisphere; and send an unequivocal signal to the entire world that the United States is a confident, capable global leader that acts not only in its own interest, but in the interest of its friends."

Both leading Democratic presidential candidates oppose the bill. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said Friday that Bush was "absolutely wrong" to support the deal, adding that the Colombian government was suspected of "potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition."

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York said last week: "We've got to have new trade policies before we have new trade deals. That includes no trade deal with Colombia while violence against trade unionists continues in that country."

Her chief strategist, Mark Penn, was forced to resign over the weekend amid revelations that he had met Colombia's ambassador to the U.S. to discuss the free trade deal.

Penn is also CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations giant that was working for the government of Colombia. Colombia fired the firm after Penn said his meeting with the ambassador had been a mistake.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, is on record supporting free trade agreements with South American countries, including Colombia.

"We need to build on the passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement by expanding U.S. trade with the region. Let's start by ratifying the trade agreements with Panama, Peru and Colombia that are already completed, and pushing forward the Free Trade Area of the Americas," he said last June.

A senior Democratic leadership aide in the Senate said that if the measure passes the House, where it will be considered first, its future in the Senate is "unpredictable."

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In particular, the aide points to concerns in the Democratic caucus about the murders of hundreds of trade unionists in Colombia. A top Republican leadership aide in the Senate said there is "sufficient support" in the Senate but worries politics -- presidential and otherwise - could be problematic.

"The question is: What games will be played between here and there?" the aide said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Kathleen Koch, Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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