- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Bush administration is quietly advancing its free-trade agenda with Asian and Latin American nations ahead of a vote that will signal Congress’ appetite for such deals.

The administration held its fourth round of U.S.-Thailand free-trade negotiations last week and is holding its 11th round of U.S.-Andean talks this week.

But many of the same issues that have delayed and may derail a vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will crop up again in the Thai, Andean and other deals where negotiations have formally begun.

The Senate approved CAFTA last month but the House, expected to vote next week, has appeared less receptive.

“CAFTA has significance far beyond Central America and the Dominican Republic. It has ramifications for our entire trade agenda,” Chris Padilla, an assistant U.S. trade representative said yesterday.

CAFTA would reduce tariffs and establish investment rules for the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The administration has promoted the agreement as a small boon for U.S. exporters, a measure to lock in democratic reforms in the region and a step toward more liberal trade worldwide.

The arguments have not swayed most Democrats and some Republicans, making defeat in the House a possibility.

“Now the agreement is in trouble because it lacks bipartisan support,” said Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.

Democrats have especially objected to CAFTA’s provisions on labor, while members of both parties say provisions that would allow foreign textiles and sugar into the United States are unpalatable.

The most contentious issues are similar in ongoing trade talks with Thailand, the three Andean nations — Peru, Colombia and Ecuador — Panama and five south African nations.

“If CAFTA passes, it allows us to continue the momentum toward more free trade in this hemisphere, and toward free trade with other partners like Thailand,” Mr. Padilla said.

A defeat, by contrast, may tell the rest of the world that Washington is unable or unwilling to lead on trade issues.

“I think it sends a loud message about the climate for trade deals in Congress right now,” said Sherman Katz, an international trade specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Some observers, though, say both the administration and its opponents are overselling CAFTA and its impact.

“Nothing’s ever fatal in politics,” said Charles Stenholm, a former Democratic representative from Texas who consistently supported trade initiatives.

Mr. Stenholm, who lost his seat in 2004 after 13 terms in the House, faulted the administration for emphasizing smaller deals rather than a broader World Trade Organization agreement, and blamed House Republicans for alienating typically pro-trade Democrats.

But he also urged both sides not to misrepresent CAFTA’s impact. “These are our neighbors. The message [a defeat] sends is that we are not concerned about our back yard,” he said.

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