- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

The House vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement Wednesday night had something to do with Central American trade.

But issues surrounding China, immigration policy, the sugar and textile industries, pet projects in the highway and energy bills, and a major effort by the Bush administration to sell CAFTA as a national security issue finally swayed doubtful Republicans to approve the pact.

“CAFTA was always more about China and immigration than it was anything to do with these Central American countries,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.

CAFTA binds the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to a set of trade and investment rules.

The House voted 217-215 in favor of the pact during a roll call scheduled to run 15 minutes but that instead lasted more than an hour, starting late Tuesday and finishing Wednesday.

The decision came down to the wire, with eight Republican holdouts stalling the vote as minutes ticked by, while House Republican leaders and White House officials, including the president, pressed the lawmakers to vote yes.

Democrats accused Republicans of swapping pork-barrel projects and political perks for votes, including consideration on farm subsidies, avoiding concessions at World Trade Organization talks, and rules on exporting to Cuba.

“They made so many side deals that American taxpayers will be paying for CAFTA for years to come,” said Rep. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Republican leaders approached some Democrats to try to win their votes with offers that “didn’t sound like it passed legal muster to me.”

Republicans discounted Mrs. Pelosi’s accusation.

The late holdouts acknowledged intense pressure from the White House and Republican leaders, but did not point to any particular payoffs.

“You feel a certain amount of pressure when the president calls you and asks you to give him a hand. But nobody threatened my highway projects, nobody gave me a bridge,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, Ohio Republican and one of the last members to vote for CAFTA.

Mr. LaTourette, who talked to the president Wednesday night, said he was ultimately swayed by a call from Ohio manufacturer KraftMaid Cabinetry in favor of CAFTA, and the sense that Democrats were more interested in beating Mr. Bush than debating free trade.

Mr. LaTourette, Rep. Robin Hayes, North Carolina Republican, and Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, Pennsylvania Republican, had opposed or been leaning against CAFTA but voted “yes” after intense lobbying.

The administration and House leaders also appealed to Republican Reps. Charles Boustany Jr. and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Rob Simmons of Connecticut. But they were not persuaded.

“I was lobbied hard to reconsider my position up to the last minute from the speaker, majority leader and the president of the United States, but I made a promise to my district and I stayed true to my word,” Mr. Boustany said.

Mr. Blunt said the winning result was partly because lawmakers in the weeks and days leading up to the vote had had a chance to vent their frustrations with illegal immigration and rising competition from China.

In addition to the broad overtures, lawmakers also were cognizant that the highway and energy bills were nearing completion, and that both contained projects important for each district.

“It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that members come and say, ‘Gee, how am I doing with my projects that I already have in the highway bill?’ And we probably weren’t beyond saying, ‘We’ll check and see how you’re doing with those projects,’ ” Mr. Blunt said.

“We don’t do near as much of that as people would think,” he added.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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