- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Of all those most mentioned as winners in last week’s successful passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) — the White House, the Republican-led Congress, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — none proved himself or earned as much newfound respect as Majority Whip Roy Blunt.

Though seen as an effective leader and vote-herder, Mr. Blunt had never really commanded the awe and reverence in the position as his predecessor — and close ally — Mr. DeLay. Last week’s come-from-behind victory on CAFTA, however, might just change that.

In the beginning of the year, just about the only person who believed that the House could pass CAFTA — which has been in the works for the better part of a decade — was Mr. Blunt.

Although the Big Media portrayed the victory as being in the vein of a last-minute Hail Mary — The Washington Post claimed the scene on the floor of the House “resembled the wheeling and dealing on a car lot” — Mr. Blunt and his staff knew they had the votes in hand, in large part because the groundwork for passage had been laid months in advance.

Key to CAFTA’s eventual success were a wide-ranging coalition, which ultimately included sugar and textile interests, a pair of critical side deals and a heavy emphasis on the importance of the trade pact on national security. While Mr. Blunt and his staff are quick to point to roles played by the White House, trade czar Rob Portman and Mr. DeLay — all of whom played substantial roles — the successful strategy was largely devised by Mr. Blunt.

This February, Mr. Blunt spearheaded the creation of a coalition of lobbyists, primarily representing business and agriculture interests. Numbering upwards of 200, they would meet several times per month, and in recent months the gatherings became weekly.

Without any prominent Democrat working to pass CAFTA, the job of building Democratic support for the trade pact fell onto the lobbyists’ coalition. Though only 15 Democrats voted for CAFTA, those close to the coalition believe that many more were in play right up until the end. That 15 Democrats bucked their party in the face of tremendous pressure from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in fact, is viewed by members of the coalition as significant in and of itself.

Since trade deals such as CAFTA are up-or-down votes, the common legislative tool of adding, removing or editing language in the bill is not an option on the table. Taking a page out of the victorious fight for fast-track authority — which removed Congress’ ability to amend trade pacts — Mr. Blunt helped orchestrate side deals that would win the support of the two industries most fearful of CAFTA: sugar and textiles.

On sugar, assurances were made to members that imports would be limited to levels specified in the farm bill. But on textiles — key to members from Pennsylvania to Alabama — the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office negotiated a side deal with Nicaragua regarding pockets-and-linings which gave needed assurances to U.S. companies on pockets and linings, a $100 million business for U.S. textile firms.

The latter deal was vital: Every Republican member of Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Alabama voted yes.

In a first for a trade deal, a central part of the pitch was national security. Mr. Blunt identified members who were most likely to be receptive to such a pitch, and the White House went all-out to help pass CAFTA. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley held several meetings with members, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made phone calls to help win over fence-sitters. President Bush even spent an hour on the Hill last week arguing that CAFTA was critical for U.S. security interests by benefiting nearby democracies.

Following the coalition efforts, side deals and administration lobbying — and, of course, lots of vote-counting — Mr. Blunt knew that CAFTA was going to clear the House, albeit by the slimmest of margins. Which explains why he brought it up for a vote late Wednesday night, instead of holding it over for another day.

Though CAFTA was down 180-175 at the end of the 17-minute voting period, it is common for close votes to be down at the close of the scheduled vote. Members are notoriously slow to punch their cards, and contested votes rarely finish in the allotted 17 minutes.

Demonstrating how calm and confident Mr. Blunt and other House leaders were of passage, one leadership aide noted that a definite “yes” vote was outside smoking a cigarette after the close of the 17-minute period. Yet, the aide explained, “We didn’t see a need to go get him. There was no rush.”

Given how frenetic the previous half-year has been for Mr. Blunt, though, it might have been the first time since the uphill climb on CAFTA began that he felt no need to push himself or his colleagues.

Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.

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