President Bush yesterday visited a North Carolina textile mill and community college to drum up support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement among workers and lawmakers wary of a new trade deal.
“For the sake of our economic security and for the sake of national security, the United States House of Representatives should follow the lead of the United States Senate and pass CAFTA and get that bill to my desk,” Mr. Bush said at Gaston College in Dallas, N.C.
The Senate last month approved CAFTA 54-45, but the pact has not reached the House floor and the vote’s outcome is uncertain.
CAFTA would bind the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to a set of trade and investment laws.
Both North Carolina senators voted for CAFTA June 30, but only one of the state’s 13 U.S. House members has publicly come out in favor of the deal, reflecting widespread hostility among factory workers worried about losing their jobs to foreign competition.
The state shed almost 73,000 jobs in textile, apparel and related industries from 2000 to 2004, a decline of about 42 percent, according to state labor data. About one-quarter — 19,630 — of all furniture industry jobs also were wiped out, often to foreign competition.
“CAFTA would mean more job losses for Americans,” Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, said last month. Mr. Jones has broken sharply with the president and is leading the House opposition to CAFTA.
Other lawmakers have maintained a lower profile but nevertheless say they are likely to vote against the pact despite intense pressure from the administration and House leadership.
The White House, for example, contacted Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the informal House Textile Caucus, to see if a presidential visit to his Greensboro district would swing him to a yes vote, but the lawmaker said a speech would not sway him.
“It would not change how he feels about the legislation,” said Ed McDonald, Mr. Coble’s spokesman.
Mr. Bush instead chose Rep. Sue Myrick’s district.
“I will vote for CAFTA because, as the textile folks who have contacted me have said, this may be the industry’s only chance to consolidate this hemisphere in defense against the onslaught of Chinese textile goods flooding our market,” the Republican lawmaker said in a June letter to six textile executives who support the agreement.
House Democrats have lined up solidly against CAFTA, saying the pact’s labor provisions are inadequate and that the Bush administration failed to adequately listen to their concerns as the deal was negotiated. Democrats also are eager to hand Mr. Bush a defeat on one of his top legislative priorities this year.
Republicans hold a 231-203 edge over Democrats and one independent in the House, but opposition from lawmakers like Mr. Coble and other Republicans with sector-specific concerns erodes that advantage.
Mr. Bush yesterday argued that CAFTA will benefit North Carolina by strengthening U.S.-Central America cooperation in the face of China’s exports.
U.S. companies ship fabric to the CAFTA countries, where it is sewn into garments and housewares, a system that would benefit from lower tariffs.
“CAFTA means textile jobs will stay right here in the United States of America,” Mr. Bush said.