- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

The United States and Dominican Republic yesterday completed free-trade negotiations, effectively plugging the Caribbean nation into a Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and potentially creating America’s second-biggest market in Latin America.

The Bush administration faces a fight to win approval of the expanded Central American pact in Congress this year. Democrats and unions are critical of labor and environmental provisions, and some Republicans are wary of forcing a controversial trade vote just before an election.

Yesterday’s announcement brings to eight the number of countries waiting in line for congressional approval of free-trade agreements. The Central American nations are Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert B. Zoellick at a press conference said those nations and the Dominican Republic would be bundled as a single agreement for a single vote by lawmakers.

Mr. Zoellick this year also has concluded talks with Australia and Morocco, deals that face an easier path through the House and Senate, though President Bush has not formally signed the pacts and no vote has been set.

Lawmakers in 2002 granted Mr. Bush trade-promotion authority, which means he can negotiate trade deals and then submit them to Congress for a yes-or-no vote with no amendments.

Mr. Zoellick said the addition of the Dominican Republic to the Central American agreement may help win some votes among lawmakers in New York and New Jersey with large Dominican constituencies.

“We see the Dominican Republic as strengthening CAFTA not only economically, but also in terms of support,” he said.

Democrats like Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, who represents a large Dominican constituency, had pushed the administration to include the Dominican Republic in the Central American agreement. Mr. Rangel has been critical of some provisions in the Central American deal, though yesterday he said a free-trade pact with the Dominican Republic could provide “mutual benefit.” He stopped short of saying he would vote yes on the pact.

Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, who is the administration’s point man in Congress for CAFTA, said adding the Dominican Republic would help solidify support for the agreement but that a vote this year is uncertain.

Trade between the United States and the Dominican Republic was almost $9 billion last year, according to USTR.

The five CAFTA nations plus the Caribbean nation total approximately $32 billion in goods trade with the United States, USTR said.

The agreement lowers trade barriers for manufactured and agricultural goods, as well as services and investment. Most consumer and industrial goods would see an immediate elimination of quotas and tariffs, while more sensitive products, like poultry, beef, dairy, sugar and rice, would retain some barriers for as long as 20 years.

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