Bush Meets With Congressional Leaders Amid CAFTA Debate

President Bush appealed anew to lawmakers to support a Central American trade agreement as Congress moved a step closer Wednesday to what could be the toughest vote on a trade deal in years.

The president's White House meeting with senators from both parties followed discussions last week with normally pro-free trade House Democrats who are resisting passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (search) with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.

The agreement, known as CAFTA, would eliminate tariffs and other trade barr rights, and Republicans linked to certain affected industries, especially sugar, are teamed up against it.

Sen. Jim Bunning (search), R-Ky., a CAFTA supporter, said Tuesday that the White House "has been missing in action when it comes to selling this agreement on Capitol Hill," and he urged Bush to get personally involved.

But Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez (search) said in an interview that the whole administration, including Bush and leaders from the departments of State, Defense, Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative, were pushing what he called a "once in a lifetime opportunity to spread freedom and democracy in a region we know is very fragile."

Last week Gutierrez met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Only one member of the 21-person House Democratic group, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, has said he supports it. "I can't imagine how you can be Hispanic-American and be against CAFTA," said the Cuba-born Gutierrez.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday approved a draft of the legislation Congress must pass for the agreement, signed a year ago, to take effect. The Senate Finance Committee took similar action Tuesday.

In coming weeks, the administration will formally submit the legislation to Congress. The House and Senate must take votes within 90 legislative days.

The House committee made two minor changes in response to critics who say the agreement, which requires signing countries to abide by their own labor laws, isn't strong enough to prevent worker abuses.

It adds a provision on periodic reporting on efforts to improve labor standards. It also requires the president to make recommendations on amending the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act (search), which helps factory workers displaced by trade competition, if CAFTA hurts workers in the service industry.

But the committee rejected, on a party-line vote, an amendment by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and other Democrats that would have required CAFTA countries to bring their labor laws into compliance with the International Labor Organization's basic standards within three years.

As the committee met, an anti-CAFTA group, including lawmakers from the House black and Hispanic caucuses and Central American legislators, rallied outside the Capitol.