- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Central American Free Trade Agreement cleared an important hurdle yesterday after the Bush administration pledged to discuss “any reasonable proposals” to allay sugar-industry concerns about the deal.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 11-9 in favor of CAFTA after an informal hearing.

Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican, proved to be the crucial pro-CAFTA vote at the hearing.

The lawmaker consistently has opposed CAFTA provisions that would allow the six Latin American nations to increase their sugar exports to the United States. But yesterday, after reviewing a letter from Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and talking with U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, he said the administration and sugar producers now appear to be willing to sit down and talk about solutions.

“I don’t know what the solution will be. … I’ll vote no if we don’t come up with something,” said Mr. Thomas, whose state is home to sugar-beet farmers.

CAFTA is a set of trade and investment rules for the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The Bush administration says the pact would boost U.S. exports while cementing economic and political reform in a region troubled by civil war through the 1980s. But opponents say CAFTA does too little to protect workers and will damage some U.S. industries — especially sugar-cane and sugar-beet growers.

“As the Senate Committee on Finance begins consideration of CAFTA-DR this morning, I want to assure you that I remain receptive to discussing any reasonable proposals that may help address your sugar growers’ concerns,” Mr. Johanns wrote to the senator.

Mr. Thomas said he and other lawmakers were meeting with sugar-beet growers yesterday and at the White House today to discuss CAFTA. He said he wanted to get the sides together for further talks and to keep the CAFTA process moving forward.

“I’m not expecting [the administration] to change the agreement,” he said.

Despite Mr. Thomas’ approach on CAFTA’s sugar provisions, parts of the industry remained adamantly opposed to the deal.

“We are fighting for our very survival, and rest assured that sugar will fight CAFTA with all the resources and tools available to our industry,” said Luther Markwart, chairman of the American Sugar Alliance.

At the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, won approval for a proposal to extend retraining to service workers who lose their jobs from trade-related competition. That training currently is available only to blue-collar workers. The administration does not have to include it in CAFTA.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, could not muster support for an amendment to step up CAFTA’s labor law enforcement.

The Senate Finance Committee will take up CAFTA legislation one more time before it goes to the Senate floor for a vote.

Lawmakers can vote yes or no but cannot amend free-trade agreements. Yesterday’s hearing was part of an informal process that allows lawmakers to recommend minor changes to trade deals.

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to consider CAFTA today . House approval of CAFTA is less certain than in the Senate.

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