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With push from Bush, CAFTA is approved

Arguments about free trade and American jobs dominate lobbying over the trade deal, which passes by two votes.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published July 28, 2005


WASHINGTON - A sharply divided U.S. House early today narrowly passed a hard-fought Central American trade agreement that had become one of the year's biggest political fights.

It was anything but a simple trade agreement.

The victory, by just two votes, was a huge one for President Bush and the Republican Party, whose legislative agenda could have been jeopardized if it had become the first failed trade agreement in four decades as some had predicted.

After more than two hours of debate, the House approved the agreement on a 217-215 vote, generally along party lines. The Senate passed it last month by a vote of 54-45, and the House vote secures its success.

"We are forging strong economic relationships, integrating economies and fulfilling a vital part of our national security," said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, who helped push the bill through the House. "I applaud Congress for passing CAFTA, as it will benefit businesses, workers and families in Florida and the entire nation."

CAFTA, or the Central American Free Trade Agreement, will eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers between the United States and six countries and increase protections for investment and intellectual property.

Even after months of intense lobbying by the White House, it was not clear CAFTA would pass. Hours before the vote, many members had refused to commit either way.

The House has 231 Republicans, 202 Democrats and one independent. A Republican recently resigned, leaving one seat vacant.

Twenty-seven Republicans voted against it. Fifteen Democrats voted for it.

The vote lasted about an hour, longer than the usual 15 to 30 minutes as more votes were sought to get the 217 votes needed to pass.

In west-central Florida, Reps. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, and Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, voted for CAFTA. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, who is running for governor and usually supports free trade, voted against it.

Davis said he primarily voted no because he had concerns that the administration would not hold CAFTA countries accountable for enforcement of labor and environmental laws.

"Trade agreements are promises, and promises are only good if they are kept," he said.

The vote came after a day full of last-minute lobbying and negotiations, dueling news conferences and backroom deals.

The day began with Bush making a rare appearance on Capitol Hill to try to cajole House Republicans to support CAFTA. Vice President Dick Cheney stayed for the day and spoke to several of the undecided Republicans, making his own pitch.

In debate on the House floor that began after 8 p.m., supporters said the agreement will open markets for U.S. manufacturers while making Central America's fledgling democracies more economically and politically stable.

"We must not neglect the antidemocracy, anti-American forces that are at work in Latin America," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.

"Trade has the power to change the world," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. Opponents said the agreement would lead to the loss of American jobs and exploit Central American workers.

"This CAFTA is frought with weaknesses over labor rights," said Rep. David Scott, D-Ga. "It is only promises of more job losses," said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine. All day long - in the white marbled hallways, in congressional offices, in press galleries - lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters tried to guess whether CAFTA would pass.

CAFTA's economic impact will be much smaller than the 1994 NAFTA agreement with Mexico and Canada, but the political ramifications are enormous. Much of the House debate took a partisan tone, with Republicans and Democrats squabbling about the length of the debate and the late hour.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay had predicted victory at a news conference earlier in the day while attacking Democrats for pressuring their members to vote against CAFTA.

"We find ourselves today with Democratic leaders browbeating members against voting their principles for politics sake," he said.

Across the Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fought back, attacking Bush and the Republicans for their efforts.

"If the president wins this vote, he will have expended enormous resources to do so," she said. The White House negotiated CAFTA more than a year ago but did not send it to Congress right away because it didn't have the votes to pass the deal.

Both sides felt enormous pressure from their parties and special interest groups, some of which had threatened to cut off campaign contributions or had targeted members in ads.

Many Florida House members worried about the impact on the state's agriculture, especially sugar growers, who had bleakly predicted it will all but put the sugar industry out of business. Almost no Floridians spoke in debate.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Crystal River, who has bucked her party's leadership before, said she was concerned about cattle ranchers in her district north of Tampa Bay. She said she tried to get an assurance from House leaders that they could be protected.

CAFTA affects trade, economy and immigration, but it was Bush's talk about national security that generated the most buzz from House Republicans who met with him behind closed doors.

The president talked about the importance of supporting young and emerging democracies in Central America to bolster U.S. national security.

Bush, who has invested considerable time and effort in CAFTA, was accompanied by Cheney and U.S. trade representative Rob Portman. Some House members also received personal visits by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or phone calls from Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

It isn't unusual for presidents to press their agendas with members of their own party or the opposition party, but they usually do it at the White House.

To calm lawmakers' concerns about the sugar and textile industries, the White House had won over several Republicans in the few weeks by pledging protection from Central American imports.

"We need to ensure that any trade agreement the U.S. enters into is fair for our workers and that's what we have done," said Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-South Carolina.

[Last modified July 28, 2005, 01:29:14]


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