In one of his last formal acts before taking a month away from Washington, President Bush signed his name to one of his administration's most important foreign policy goals — the Central America Free Trade Agreement (search).

"I'm pleased that Congress has taken a step to eliminate the barriers to America's goods and crops to 44 million customers," Bush said during an East Room signing ceremony attended by the ambassadors of the participating countries as well as several Cabinet officials.

All of us in this room understand that to keep our economy growing and creating jobs, we need to open markets for American products overseas," Bush said, adding that strengthening ties with democracies in our hemisphere" improves America's economic and national security interests and advances stability elsewhere.

The trade deal with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic opens up the region to U.S. goods and services and takes steps to promote investment and strengthen intellectual property rights for products crossing over America's southern border.

While the economic impact for the United States is modest — exports to the region are now about $15 billion out of total U.S. exports in goods and services of about $1 trillion annually — Bush noted that opening up the markets will attract trade and investment to the region needed for economic growth. That growth will reduce poverty and open up a "vibrant middle class" of people who "have made the choice for freedom."

Bush added that the deal will also help to stifle illegal immigration to the United States.

Approval of the pact was hard-won by Bush, who last week went to Capitol Hill to lobby House lawmakers to pass the trade agreement. The bill squeaked by in the end, 217-215, with all but 15 Democrats opposing the measure. Democrats cited the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement in part to explain their opposition.

Twenty-seven Republicans also rejected the deal, saying they were unable to justify to constituents the impact of the deal on sugar and textile interests.

The bill passed the Senate in June by a wider 55-45 margin, with 11 Democrats and 1 independent senator voting for the bill and 12 Republicans opposing it.

The participating nations signed the agreement in May 2004. Three countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — have already ratified the pact, which will go into effect as soon as those countries and the United States agree on a date. The other three countries have two years to approve it.

Before the signing ceremony, Bush spoke with Guatemalan President Oscar Bergeg about the importance of the deal, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

In pushing for final passage, Bush and his top trade officials, led by U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman (search), concentrated on winning over Republicans, offering several side deals to protect the sugar and textile industries and appealing to them to put the interests of the nation, and the party, above parochial concerns.

Since Bush took office, Congress has signed off on free trade agreements with Jordan, Singapore, Chile, Australia and Morocco. None of those accords faced the difficulty of CAFTA, mainly because the poverty in some CAFTA countries made labor rights a more sensitive issue.

Congressional rejection of CAFTA could also have made it more difficult for the administration to negotiate and win approval of other trade agreements.

Next up could be a free trade agreement with Bahrain, followed by others with Thailand and Andean countries.

Portman went directly from his CAFTA victory to Geneva, where the United States is trying to advance World Trade Organization (search) talks, known as the Doha round, to reduce global trade barriers. Also on the agenda is an effort to come together on a free trade agreement encompassing the entire Western Hemisphere.

The bill signing was one of Bush's final bits of housekeeping before he and the first lady pack up and move to their home in Crawford, Texas, for the month of August. Congress too is in recess until Sept. 6.

White House aides said despite the exodus from Washington, the president will be on a working vacation. He plans to sign two other bills passed by Congress before the break — highway and energy legislation.

Over the next month, Bush is also expected to visit seven states for 10 events and will be updating Americans on the War on Terror. He will be meeting with U.S. troops and seniors, and will use his vacation to promote the theme of a healthy lifestyle through food and exercise, said the aides.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.