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U.S. free trade accords face rocky road

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Describing Mr. Hare's western Illinois district of farmland and small manufacturing as "ground zero for the negative effects of those deals," he says Hare and other members of the House Trade Working Group want to see improved trade adjustment assistance to workers and action on China trade issues before any new free-trade agreements are considered by Congress.

Yet even as some Congress members raise red flags over free trade's negative impact on US workers – and in some cases, consumers – pro-trade forces warn that a failure to ratify negotiated agreements would alarm US partners.

It could also send new shivers through the global economy, they add – by suggesting, for example, that current multilateral trade negotiations may be doomed.

"We'll either decide we're still going on the path towards openness, or to reject them [the pending FTAs] will be a very strong signal the US is turning its back on the world," says Phillip Levy, an international trade expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a recent senior trade economist on the President's Council of Economic Advisers.

A case in point is Colombia. US officials emphasize Colombia as a "partner" in the war on drugs and as a strengthening democracy deserving continued US support, rather than as a trade partner.

Noting that Colombian goods already flow freely to the US under the Andean trade promotion agreement, they say any economic impact is likely to be in the US's favor, since American goods would enter Colombia freely under an FTA.

But Congressional rejection of the FTA, they add, would send a stark signal that the US is no longer interested in the stability of a country the US has assisted with $5 billion in counter-narcotics, military, and development assistance since 2000.

The US also holds up Colombia as a staunch friend in an increasingly problematic region, and some Democrats accompanying Secretary Rice last month said the growing hostility of next-door neighbor Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez could cause them to consider an FTA with Colombia more favorably.

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