- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

The Bush administration and its business allies are making a final push confident they can win approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a pact that opponents insist is “dead on arrival” if it goes to Congress for a vote.

Both sides see June as a make-or-break time for CAFTA as lawmakers decide to support or oppose the deal.

“It looks like we can get this done, if we can at all, in June,” Rep. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican and House majority whip, said Wednesday.

CAFTA is the most ambitious and most controversial free-trade agreement sent to Capitol Hill since the North American Free Trade Agreement, with Mexico and Canada, in 1993. CAFTA, also known as DR-CAFTA, eases trade and codifies investment rules among the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The United States and five Central American countries signed the deal a year ago today, and the Dominican Republic was added in August. But the agreement languished, in part because of fierce opposition from organized labor, the sugar lobby and the lawmakers concerned about the trade deficit.

The Bush administration and congressional leaders had hoped for a vote before the Memorial Day recess but that goal slipped to a June or possibly July vote.

“Evidence of CAFTA’s failure is found in Congress’ inability to bring the agreement to the floor for a vote,” said Rep. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat. Mr. Brown, joined by anti-CAFTA legislators from both parties this week, called the deal “dead on arrival” unless renegotiated.

Mr. Brown said an early June vote would ensure CAFTA’s defeat. Echoing Mr. Brown, groups that oppose CAFTA say they have already won the argument against the trade deal.

“CAFTA is a moldering corpse that needs burial,” said Lori M. Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a Washington nonprofit founded by Ralph Nader.

But the administration’s trade team counters that it is fast gaining support.

“We definitely have momentum right now,” said Matt Niemeyer, assistant U.S. trade representative for congressional affairs. “This agreement should not be measured by how many members of Congress hold press conferences denouncing it but by the number of members that vote for it on final passage.”

Both houses of Congress vote yes or no on trade deals, with no amendments allowed. A simple majority prevails.

Mr. Bush this month has stepped up efforts to sell the pact, including high-profile meetings with presidents from the six CAFTA countries and personal involvement with lawmakers, including a private meeting with senators on Thursday.

“This is one if his highest priorities in the near term,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. The White House would not confirm the Thursday meeting but one source said the president met with more than a dozen senators from both parties.

The administration is emphasizing national security and strategic goals related to CAFTA.

Business allies, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers, also are telling lawmakers that CAFTA will help businesses. They plan a series of meetings in district offices with undecided lawmakers after Memorial Day.

“This is the key trade vote of the year,” said John Murphy, vice president for Western Hemisphere affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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