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Senate gives Bush win on CAFTA; fight likely looms in House

Senate gives Bush win on CAFTA; fight likely looms in House

Associated Press
Published July 1, 2005


WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday endorsed a free trade agreement with six Latin American nations, handing a major win to President Bush, who has promoted the accord as a mark of U.S. commitment to democracy and prosperity in the hemisphere.

The vote was 54-45 in favor of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, setting the stage for a final battle in the House, where the agreement's critics have said they will fight to defeat it.

The House vote, expected this month, is too close to call.

U.S. officials signed the agreement a year ago with the Central American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua as well as the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. It needs congressional approval to go into effect, however.

Action in Congress has been slowed by opposition from Democrats, who say its labor provisions are too weak and will lead to worker rights abuses in the region, and lawmakers from sugar beet and sugar cane-growing areas, who say it will hurt local industries.

The White House, in a statement, said CAFTA would further open a market of 44-million consumers of U.S. products and "promote democracy, security and prosperity in a part of the world once characterized by oppression and military dictatorship."

Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, voted for the bill, stressing both economic and security reasons.

"America already is open to products from Central America and the Dominican Republic," Nelson said. "This creates a fair playing field by opening those countries to U.S. goods and services, especially from Florida. It's also a way we can help Central America embrace democracy and economic reform."

In the final days leading to the vote it was unclear whether Martinez would support the agreement. He said he wanted to vote for it, but worried about the sugar industry.

Martinez, a freshman senator and former Bush Cabinet member recruited by Republican leaders to run for office, has been supported by the powerful sugar industry, receiving more money from it during the 2003-04 election cycle than any member of Congress.

A last-minute deal with the Bush administration helped secure the vote of Martinez and several other senators who had been worried about the effects on the sugar industry, which includes three major cane producers in Florida.

"Before I voted for CAFTA, I wanted to ensure that all Florida's agricultural sectors were treated fairly under this agreement, including Florida's sugar producers," Martinez said. "I have been working hard to find a compromise that would offer protections to Florida's sugar producers from the threat of a flooded domestic sugar market."

--Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 1, 2005, 01:25:06]


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