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Madam Speaker, I thank the gentleman for yielding.
Madam Speaker, I rise today in support of this important legislation. The Andean Trade Preferences program continues to be a vital component of our efforts to promote peace, prosperity and stability in South America, and it should be extended.
But, Madam Speaker, listening to the debate today, I was reminded of an old adage that says "political friendships follow the trade lanes." Consider Colombia. The success of this program there demonstrates just how critical trade is to creating friendly and democrat allies in troubled regions.
But there is more that we can do and should be doing. We must act quickly to approve the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, not only to meet our international obligations, but to strengthen our economy by boosting U.S. exports to Latin America. Last year alone, my home State of Illinois exported $214 million in merchandise to Colombia, ranking it fourth among the States. More importantly, Illinois exports to Colombia grew 136 percent between 2002 and 2006.
These trends are not unique. For all of our economic troubles, U.S. exports continue to drive profits and job growth. According to the Treasury Department's latest economic update, real exports have risen 7.7 percent in just the last four quarters.
A free trade agreement will promote even faster growth by giving U.S. exporters duty free access to Colombian markets, the same access that our Colombian exporters already enjoy to the U.S. At the same time, it will strengthen our friendship with a vital ally and provide for stronger protection of the rights of laborers in that region.
Madam Speaker, the bill before us today is a good first step. I commend the chairman and ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee for their bipartisan efforts, and urge my colleagues to support this bill. But I also ask my colleagues to keep in mind that action today must be followed by action tomorrow. We must work as quickly as possible to pass the Colombian Free Trade Agreement in the coming months.
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