The House last night approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement by a two-vote margin, handing President Bush a hard-fought victory on one of his top priorities this year.
CAFTA will have little impact on the overall U.S. economy but became a politically potent symbol for the Bush administration’s legislative agenda this year.
The administration eked out the 217-215 win after Mr. Bush in a rare trip to the Capitol yesterday appealed to Republican lawmakers for support, while senior White House officials and House leaders offered a series of late deals on labor, textiles and sugar.
Republican leadership held the vote open for more than an hour instead of the 15 minutes scheduled. Lawmakers voted largely along party lines, with 15 Democrats voting for the deal.
“The Central American Free Trade Agreement is a test we cannot fail,” Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, said ahead of the vote.
CAFTA would bind the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to lower tariffs and new investment rules.
The Senate approved the agreement last month. Lawmakers can vote yes or no on CAFTA, with no amendments; a simple majority prevails.
The Bush administration and Republican leaders worked up to the last minute to try to swing skeptical lawmakers from doubtful to affirmative.
“CAFTA is a little trade agreement with small economic consequences for our country. But it is a huge national security issue with enormous implications for our entire foreign policy,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, repeating one of the administration’s main arguments in favor of the agreement.
Conflict and violence troubled Central America through the 1980s, though all six Latin governments are now democracies.
Mr. Bush during his Capitol Hill visit yesterday morning emphasized the national security arguments for CAFTA, calling it a helping hand to fragile democracies and a vote of confidence in regional allies.
“And that was something that clearly resonated with members of the House,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
But Democrats and a number of Republicans were just as adamant that CAFTA not pass, arguing that its labor and environment provisions are lax and that it would hurt textile manufacturers and sugar producers.
“We have taken a bill that could have meant something, we could have been proud of that bill [but] we’ve made a political toy of it. We have excluded Democrats and we have offended some Republicans,” said Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.
CAFTA opponents yesterday questioned last-minute deals and accused Republicans of handing out pork barrel projects to win votes.
“When facts fail, they make deals, they twist arms, they buy votes,” said Rep. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat.
In the end, though, Mr. Bush prevailed because of the late deals and his allies argued that CAFTA would help create U.S. jobs, bolster fledgling democracies, support economic development in the poor nations and in the process slow immigration from Central America.
Despite the victory, observers said the CAFTA showdown will shape the administration’s trade priorities for the remainder of Mr. Bush’s term in office.
“I think they do have to recalibrate their strategy. They have to figure out a way to resume a dialogue with pro-trade Democrats,” said Mac Destler, a visiting fellow at the Institute for International Economics and author of a book on trade politics.
The administration may have to refocus on a broader World Trade Organization agreement at the expense of smaller deals.
“I think they will have learned that moving controversial regional or bilateral trade agreements is a costly political proposition, and they will be more likely to devote additional attention to the [WTO’s] Doha round,” said Clayton Yeutter, a former U.S. trade representative.
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman is negotiating free-trade deals with Latin American, African and Asian nations, as well as pursuing WTO talks with 147 other countries.
The so-called Doha round would have the biggest economic payoff for the United States, and WTO votes have in the past attracted bipartisan support.