- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

President Bush yesterday signed into law the Central America Free Trade Agreement before flying to his Texas ranch for a monthlong vacation.

“CAFTA is more than a trade bill; it is a commitment among freedom-loving nations to advance peace and prosperity throughout the region,” Mr. Bush said in an East Room ceremony. “The United States has a moral obligation and a vital national security interest in helping democracies in our neighborhood succeed, and CAFTA advances this goal.”

The agreement is one of several recent legislative victories for the president. CAFTA largely eliminates tariffs that had been imposed on U.S. goods by the Dominican Republic and five Central American nations: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Mr. Bush faced strong congressional opposition from some members of his own party in the CAFTA fight. The White House mounted a strong lobbying push to get enough Republican votes in the House to pass the agreement by a two-vote margin, 217-215, and 27 Republicans voted against the measure.

“To keep our economy growing and creating jobs, we need to open markets for American products overseas,” the president said yesterday. “By leveling the playing field for our products, CAFTA will help create jobs and opportunities for our citizens.”

Mr. Bush said the agreement also will help its other signatories by spurring economic activity that will lead to an increased standard of living. This, in turn, will reduce illegal immigration to the United States, he said.

“The more opportunity that Central Americans have at home to provide for themselves and their families means it’s less likely that someone looking for a job will try to come to this country illegally,” he said.

Mr. Bush is expected to sign additional legislation, including the energy and highway bills, during side trips from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Other victories for the president include reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act by both the House and Senate, which must finalize the measure in the fall.

The president planned to tout his legislative accomplishments in a speech outside Dallas today. Tomorrow, Mr. Bush will host Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on his 1,600-acre spread known as Prairie Chapel Ranch.

Before leaving the White House yesterday, Mr. Bush called the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery on a videoconference link.

“I just wanted to tell you all how proud the American people are of our astronauts,” the president said. “I want to thank you for being risk takers for the sake of exploration.”

Mr. Bush, mindful of repairs planned for the shuttle, wished the crew good luck.

“As you prepare to come back, a lot of Americans will be praying for a safe return,” he said. “Thanks for taking my phone call. Now get back to work.”

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