- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

House lawmakers yesterday informally recommended approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a small but important step in the biggest free-trade fight in more than a decade.

The Ways and Means Committee voted 25-16 in favor of the pact, only a day after the Senate Finance Committee narrowly voiced its approval, 11-9.

The Bush administration now has to decide when to send a formal CAFTA bill to Congress, a step that sets in motion a 90-day clock for a final vote by the House and Senate. A simple majority in each chamber prevails; no amendments are allowed.

“The momentum is building. I am confident that when a vote is taken this agreement will pass,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican.

CAFTA, also known as DR-CAFTA, would establish trade and investment rules for the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Opposition had galvanized around objections from organized labor, the sugar industry and domestic textile companies, delaying congressional consideration and making final approval seem improbable.

CAFTA still faces difficult tests in Congress, with Democrats close to united in opposition and a handful of Republicans unenthusiastic, some because of broad concerns about the trade deficit and some because of narrower worries that specific industries would be hurt.

“The current trade environment … is not conducive for adoption of DR-CAFTA,” Rep. Phil English, Pennsylvania Republican, said after he voted against the agreement.

But the deal appears to have gained support since presidents from all six CAFTA countries last month barnstormed the United States to argue for the terms, while the Bush administration began to frame the debate around national security.

In the meantime, the administration worked to allay concerns of the textile manufacturers, and sugar-beet and sugar-cane farmers. The efforts split the textile industry and opened up negotiations with sugar producers, creating enough support for CAFTA to advance in Congress.

Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican whose district is home to sugar cane growers and processors, voted for CAFTA yesterday while acknowledging ongoing talks among White House, congressional and industry officials.

“I am going to support this agreement at this meeting for the purpose of continuing debate,” he said.

House Republicans defeated four CAFTA amendments proposed yesterday by Democrats. The amendments would have toughened CAFTA’s labor provisions, created a new position at the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office to deal with health issues, expanded funding for worker retraining, and made generic drugs more readily available in CAFTA countries.

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