WASHINGTON – The six countries of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (search) altogether do about as much trade with the United States as The Netherlands. But rarely has a trade deal been more controversial or an administration staked so much on approval.
The House is to vote this week on CAFTA, and despite months of intense effort by President Bush (search) and his trade officials, the outcome is unclear.
The Senate, more amenable to trade agreements, last month approved the pact, signed more than a year ago with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
With some political risk, Bush has put CAFTA near the top of his legislative agenda, meeting personally with dozens of lawmakers, giving speeches around the country, encouraging support from Hispanic groups and venturing into textile country in North Carolina, where there's little love for free trade agreements.
"This bill is more than a trade bill," Bush said Thursday in a speech to the Organization of American States (search). "This bill is a commitment of freedom-loving nations to advance peace and prosperity throughout the Western Hemisphere."
Also spreading that message are U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman , Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.
Portman, a former House member from Ohio, has spent almost every day on Capitol Hill since assuming office this spring. He presses his case even with the most adamant anti-CAFTA members and tries to answer concerns over effects on the U.S. sugar and textile industries and labor rights in Central America.
Last week he delivered his CAFTA speech to about 10 members jammed into a Capitol elevator with him.
Gutierrez in the past three months has held more than 200 meetings with individual lawmakers, participated in 300 conference calls and conducted 120 media interviews, his office said.
As the vote approaches, there have been warnings that the fragile Central American democracies could slip back into the turmoil of the recent past if denied this economic partnership with the United States.
America's position as the leader in promoting world stability "could take major steps backward" if CAFTA is defeated, said Rep. Kevin Brady , R-Texas, a leading proponent of the pact. "That's a pretty compelling argument."
"Failure is not an option for us," said Matt Niemeyer, assistant U.S. trade representative for congressional affairs. "The implications of defeat are so much larger than the economic impact of CAFTA."
They also argue that U.S. exports to the region, now about $15 billion annually, would go up because CAFTA eliminates tariffs and other barriers to U.S. products, that U.S. intellectual property would be better protected and American investment would be facilitated. They say CAFTA is essential if the United States is to advance a far larger Western Hemisphere free trade accord and other international negotiations to open markets.
And yet, anti-CAFTA passions are intense. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that 90 percent to 95 percent of Democrats will vote against it. They believe the agreement doesn't adequately protect worker rights in the impoverished region and previous trade agreements have helped send jobs out of this country.
Democrats and organized labor compare CAFTA to NAFTA, the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that many blame for job losses.
To sway the undecided, the administration has promised to close loopholes that might allow China to take advantage of duty-free clothing exports from the region to the United States and to lessen the impact of sugar imports on U.S. sugar beet and cane growers.
GOP leaders have promised a vote, parallel to the CAFTA vote, on a bill focusing on China's trade practices.
"Anything in the right direction on China is probably helpful on CAFTA," said Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., the sponsor of the China bill who now says he will support CAFTA.
Rep. Phil Gingrey , R-Ga., said fifth-generation textile manufacturers in his district are going to have trouble understanding why he now leans toward voting for the bill. But he feels his talks with Bush, Portman and others won improvements. "Once they have done everything I asked them to do, I'm not going to up the ante," he said.
On the other hand, Rep. Butch Otter, R-Idaho, said his talks with Bush and Portman had not dissuaded him that trade deals were bad for the United States. Otter said NAFTA, which he voted for, "has been an absolute disaster for Idaho. I've probably voted for my last trade agreement."