CAFTA wins slim Senate OK

showdown vote set in House

Ways and Means panel votes for trade accord

July 01, 2005|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Senate narrowly approved a free trade agreement yesterday between the United States and five Central American countries plus the Dominican Republic.

The House Ways and Means Committee, voting largely along party lines, also approved the agreement known as CAFTA, setting up a showdown vote in the House this month.

The 54-45 Senate vote came after two days of largely partisan debate on the trade agreement hammered out by the Bush administration with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Democrats, voted against the trade agreement.

Republicans hailed it as a crucial step toward promoting economic and political stability in a region they argued is vital to the United States' security. They also said the agreement was needed to strengthen Central America's ability to compete against an expected flood of apparel exports from China.

But Democrats argued the agreement was fatally flawed because it would allow countries with a history of notoriously low wages, poor working conditions and opposition to organized labor to continue those practices.

"Some of the working conditions are below common decency," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the New York Democrat.

Florida Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said the future of fledgling democracies in Central America and the security of the United States were at stake.

"Every country in the world is watching this vote to see if the United States is serious about free trade or not," Shaw said. "Rather than providing handouts or loans, the United States can quickly improve the quality of life of millions of our neighbors by providing DR-CAFTA countries improved access to our vast market and an opportunity to purchase U.S. products free of high tariffs."

While the votes in the Senate and the House committee were largely expected, both sides predicted a close vote when the bill reaches the House floor.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the trade subcommittee, said he did not believe the agreement would win House approval if the vote were held now, but conceded the administration might be able to change enough votes during the Fourth of July recess to win a narrow victory.

One effort to round up wavering votes focused on sugar.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns sent a letter late Wednesday to the chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees promising that the administration would protect the domestic sugar industry from a potential influx of sugar from the CAFTA countries.

Under the administration's promise, the secretary of agriculture would purchase sugar from these countries in excess of the 1.5 million short ton quota on foreign imports. Johanns also said the department would study the feasibility of converting sugar into ethanol.

The sugar promises swayed few votes in the Senate, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said they helped provide the margin of victory and would make it easier to pass the agreement in the House.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said the administration's promise "will protect the sugar industry for the next 2 1/2 years of the farm bill."

But North Dakota Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a Democrat, warned that CAFTA was "the first step of taking [the] sugar program apart." The next step, the envisioned Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, "will be the giant step."

In the House, Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, which grows the country's most sugar cane, said he was still hopeful that more concessions would be made to the sugar industry before the House vote.

Foley voted for the agreement, but said he wanted administration support for a pilot program to convert sugar to ethanol, not just a feasibility study, before he would commit to supporting the agreement on the House floor.

"I need a pretty strong indication that this sugar is going to be used," Foley said.

CAFTA facts

Participants: The Central America Free Trade Agreement, signed in May, 2004, involves the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Current trade: The United States now exports more than $15 billion to the region, making it America's 13th largest export market worldwide, and the second largest in Latin America, behind Mexico.

Benefits: Today, nearly 80 percent of Central American products already enter the United States duty free. Under CAFTA, almost all trade barriers to U.S. goods, services and farm products would be eliminated immediately or over time. The agreement offers protections for digital products such as software, music and videos. It also establishes a legal framework for U.S. investors, discourages corruption in government contracting and strengthens protections for U.S. patents and trademarks.

Criticisms: Critics say that, like other free trade agreements, it will result in an increased trade deficit and the loss of American jobs. They also say the labor rights provisions lack teeth and that U.S. farm imports may drive subsistence farmers off their land, leading to overcrowding in Central American cities and an increase in illegal immigration to the United States.

Associated Press

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