- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

The free-trade coalition of Republicans and Democrats that won passage of NAFTA and a series of other trade agreements throughout the 1990s has crumbled as Democratic support has fallen under President Bush.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the change has come as Democrats seek a chance to deny Republicans a win on part of their agenda, and it threatens the success of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which Congress began debating last week.

“It is pure politics on the part of the Democratic Party in the House. They think the worst thing that could happen would be to give the president or the Republican Party a win,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who, as chief deputy majority whip, is one of the Republicans’ vote-counters on the issue.

Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia, one of the few Democrats who has announced his support for CAFTA, said the breakdown in party relations has led to “the breakdown in support for free trade.

“It is so partisan an atmosphere that Democrats are disinclined to do anything that is going to advance the political agenda of the House leadership or the White House,” he said.

Mr. Moran has been working to try to find more Democratic support, but said he’s having trouble making an argument on “substantive grounds” to other Democrats. “I’m running into a great deal of political resistance. I think that the Democratic leadership is understandably primarily focused on winning back control of the House, and on a tough vote like CAFTA, for every Democrat that votes for it, it’s one less Republican that has to walk the political plank in their district,” he said.

But other Democrats said blame for the breakdown lies squarely with Mr. Bush, who they say has not included Democrats as he negotiates agreements.

“They don’t write, they don’t call, they don’t send flowers,” said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, California Democrat and chairwoman of the House New Democrat Coalition. Many of the NDC’s members had supported free-trade agreements in the past, but the group sent a letter to Mr. Bush last month announcing it cannot support CAFTA.

“What is clear is the authority the president was given, with Democratic votes on Trade Promotion Authority, was never matched in spirit or in effort in order to have these agreements passed by the Congress,” she said. “There’s no denying the [House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay formula of having only Republicans pass legislation is not going to work in this case, because they don’t have enough Republican votes.”

NAFTA passed the House in 1993 with 102 Democrats supporting it, including current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. Permanent normal trade relations with China passed in 2000 with the support of 73 House Democrats.

But since Mr. Bush took office, Democratic support for free trade has fallen precipitously. Trade promotion authority initially passed the House in 2001 with 21 Democrats in support, and the House-Senate conference report passed in 2002 with 25 Democrats voting for it.

At the same time, Republican opposition to trade agreements has fallen. While 43 Republicans voted against NAFTA, just 27 voted against trade promotion authority in 2002.

Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said redistricting in California also may have influenced some Democrats’ votes by making their districts more liberal and vulnerable to primary challenges. Those lawmakers have had to shift support away from free-trade agreements.

Mr. Hoyer, though, said the difference is in the trade agreements themselves. He said CAFTA is different than NAFTA and some of the other bilateral agreements that have passed under Mr. Bush like deals with Australia, Morocco and Jordan.

Mr. Moran said he thinks about 20 Democrats will vote for CAFTA in the House, and that the agreement will be approved. “It’s going to pass — the question is how many Republicans are going to have to walk the plank,” he said.

• Jeffrey Sparshott contributed to this article.

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