WASHINGTON – The House narrowly approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement early Thursday, a personal triumph for President Bush (search), who campaigned aggressively for the accord he said would foster prosperity and democracy in the hemisphere.
The 217-215 vote just after midnight adds six Latin American countries to the growing lists of nations with free trade agreements with the United States and averts what could have been a major political embarrassment for the Bush administration.
It was an uphill effort to win a majority, with Bush traveling to Capitol Hill earlier in the day to appeal to wavering Republicans to support a deal he said was critical to U.S. national security.
The United States signed the accord, known as CAFTA, a year ago with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and the Senate approved it last month. It now goes to the president for his signature.
To capture a majority, supporters had to overcome what some have called free trade fatigue, a growing sentiment that free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada have contributed to a loss of well-paying American jobs and the soaring trade deficit.
Democrats, who were overwhelmingly against CAFTA, also argued that its labor rights provisions were weak and would result in exploitation of workers in Central America.
But supporters pointed out that CAFTA would over time eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers that impede U.S. sales to the region, correcting the current situation in which 80 percent of Central American goods enter the United States duty-free but Americans must pay heavy tariffs.
The agreement would also strengthen intellectual property protections and make it easier for Americans to invest in the region.
"This is a test of American leadership in a changing world," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, a leading proponent of the agreement. "We cannot claim to be fighting for American jobs and yet turn our backs on 44 million new customers in Central America.
In the end, it was the national security argument — that rejection of the deal would further impoverish the region, undermine their democracies and exacerbate the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States — that appeared to persuade some wavering members.
The president, said White House press secretary Scott McLellan, stressed to Republicans "the importance of supporting young and emerging democracies in our own hemisphere, and the importance of strengthening democracy here in our own hemisphere. And that was something that clearly resonated with members of the House."
"It is good for our national security in supporting these fledgling democracies at our back door," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said after the meeting with Bush.
To allay lawmakers' concerns about the U.S. sugar and textile industries, the administration also won over several Republicans by pledging protection from Central American imports.
Not all were convinced. Rep. Howard Coble, R-Ga., who voted against the accord, said he told Bush that his late mother was a textile worker and that when textile workers urged him to vote against CAFTA, "I said to the president, 'it's my mamma talking to me."'
Some textile groups now support the pact because it could help Central American clothing manufacturers, which buy large quantities of U.S. fabric and material, compete against Chinese goods, which have almost no U.S. content.
The House on Wednesday also passed legislation strengthening the monitoring of China's trade policies, a bill that GOP leaders brought to the floor to satisfy several lawmakers who were undecided on CAFTA because they said the United States wasn't tough enough in enforcing trade laws.
Bush has invested considerable time and effort to winning approval of CAFTA. For example, he invited the leaders of all six nations to a White House meeting and has spoken to Hispanic and business groups and with dozens of lawmakers.
In addition to the six new CAFTA nations and the NAFTA nations Canada and Mexico, the United States has free trade agreements with Australia, Chile, Singapore, Jordan and Israel. Congress has also approved a free trade pact with Morocco that has yet to go into effect.
The bill is H.R. 3045 .