- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — President Bush and his Mexican and Canadian counterparts today directly challenged talk by Democratic presidential candidates of withdrawing from a trade agreement between the three countries.

Mr. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in particular, made especially strong denunciations of the idea that the U.S. might pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Now is not the time to renegotiate NAFTA or to walk away from NAFTA. Now is the time to make it better, Mr. Bush said, during a joint press conference with Mr. Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Mr. Calderon used even stronger terms, saying that a withdrawal from NAFTA would condemn North America as a region to complete backwardness.

If you were to take a step backwards … you would be condemning the Americas to having one of the least competitive economies in the developed world, while other countries are accelerating their economies, Mr. Calderon said, mentioning China, India, Japan, and the European Union”s consolidated trade block.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were not mentioned by name. But on the day that the senator from New York and the senator from Illinois went head to head in a potentially decisive Pennsylvania primary, the summit of three world leaders was focused on them.

Both candidates have said they would consider pulling out of NAFTA as they have campaigned in states hit hard by job losses and a weakening economy.

Mr. Harper was more diplomatic in his comments, saying that Canada would be ready to do anything one of our partners wants to do.

But he too made it clear that the benefits of our NAFTA relationship are without question.

I”m confident that when the facts are looked at … any president will quickly conclude how important NAFTA and jobs and trade are, Mr. Harper said.

Mr. Bush also denied that the U.S. is in a recession, despite the fact that many economists and analysts believe the U.S. to be in one of its worst economic periods in many years.

We”re not in a recession. We”re in a slowdown, Mr. Bush said. We grew in the fourth quarter last year.

And for the second day in a row, the president directed heavy fire at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, for her blockage of the Colombia free trade agreement.

Mr. Bush said Mrs. Pelosi had used an extraordinary procedure to change House rules requiring a vote within 60 days of the president”s submission of the pact to Congress, and condemned what he called a bad decision on her part.

If the deal fails to pass, Mr. Bush said Mrs. Pelosi would have to explain why the voices of false populism have been strengthened, why anti-Americanism could flourish when American turns its back on a strong leader like President Uribe.

Mr. Bush has said he believes a rejection of the Colombian FTA would embolden Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has tried to unite South American leaders against the U.S.

I”m concerned about protectionism in America, Mr. Bush said passionately. It”s not in our interests.

At one point, when talking about protectionism, Mr. Bush pounded the podium so hard that he knocked the sign on the front of his podium off kilter.

Mrs. Pelosi responded quickly to the president”s comments, saying that the American people want solutions on the economy and less partisan rhetoric from the President.

The speaker contends that the president also “broke decades-old precedent by sending the FTA to Congress without an agreement with congressional leaders,” a Pelosi aide said.

By removing the restrictive timeline on the Colombia free trade agreement, Democrats voted to put the economic needs of the American people first, Mrs. Pelosi said.

Democrats stand ready to work with the president to bring the Colombia free trade agreement to a vote in the House, but the timing has to be that of America”s working families, not the timing of the president, she said.

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