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U.S. free trade accords face rocky road

With elections and economic woes, congressional approval of foreign trade accords will be an uphill battle.

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A fresh battle is brewing in Washington over foreign trade, with the White House persevering in its pursuit of free trade agreements while congressional Democrats – some elected two years ago on protectionist planks – appear more inclined to take up trade issues with China than pass new deals.

President Bush is ramping up efforts to get Congressional approval of free-trade agreements (FTAs) already negotiated with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

Late last month, he dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Colombia, with a bevy of House Democrats in tow, to renew the push for the Colombia accord, invoking national security interests over economic ones for the agreement.

But with January producing gloomy employment figures and with Democratic House and Senate freshmen looking to toughen trade rules that they can then take to voters in November, the road to any FTA approval appears steep at best.

"We need to call a time out on passage of any more trade agreements," says Tim Schlittner, an aide to US Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill).

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