Backers of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a small
yet pivotal trade pact with wide implications for the administrations
free-trade agenda, are preparing for what could be a bruising battle to
pass it in the House.
As the House comes into session today, CAFTA
supporters, who include many business and agriculture groups and most
House Republicans, kick off a monthlong sprint to bring the agreement to a
floor vote before the July 4 recess. Should they fail, it would lend
ammunition to an already strong opposition consisting of labor unions, the
sugar industry and most House Democrats.
CAFTA proponents already
face a daunting legislative calculus. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has
been leading House opposition to the pact, said before last weeks
congressional recess that he had amassed 40 to 50 Republicans and 190
Democrats to vote against the measure, well ahead of the 218 votes needed
to sink it.
Pro-CAFTA lobbyists said those numbers are inflated but
nonetheless conceded that they face an uphill battle to muster support for
the agreement in such a short time frame.
I think its going to be
real tough to do it that quickly. All the ducks would have to be perfectly
in a row for that to happen, one lobbyist said, noting that it was likely
a vote would spill over into July. The lobbyist disputed Browns claim of
Republican opposition, saying at most 30 were opposed.
survey by Washington Trade Daily of 343 House offices found that 32
Republicans, 158 Democrats and one independent said they will or are
likely to vote against CAFTA. Over 70 members were undecided.
an effort to chip away at those numbers, business groups coordinated
lobbying campaigns in members districts during the congressional recess.
Yet Brown contended that such grassroots lobbying had failed to pull any
members across the fence.
Its when people come back to Washington
and the president starts beating them up, bringing them to the White House
and offering them deals, that the numbers start to drop, even then they
dont drop enough to allow the pact to pass, Brown said.
administration hopes to prove him wrong. Administration officials have
been active lobbying the Hill in recent weeks. U.S. Trade Representative
Rob Portman, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, her deputy Robert
Zoellick, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Commerce Secretary Carlos
Gutierrez and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley have all made calls
or visits to the Hill. President Bush has made passage of CAFTA a familiar
refrain in his speeches.
Both sides are drawing parallels between
the CAFTA vote and the 2002 House vote on trade-promotion authority, which
gave the administration expanded powers to negotiate trade deals. Sizable
Democratic support in 2002 25 Democrats crossed the aisle helped
Republican leaders overcome dissension in their own ranks about the
free-trade agenda. The CAFTA lobby is hoping for the same scenario this
time, while anti-CAFTA forces are hoping to thwart it.
were going to lose a certain number of Republicans. We need Democrats to
make up for that. This vote aint happening without Democrats, said a
senior House GOP leadership aide.
Yet Brown was confident he could
keep Democrats lined up against the deal.
Our whip operation is
going to step up another notch, he said.
Four Democrats have
declared their support for CAFTA: Reps. Henry Cuellar (Texas), Norm Dicks
(Wash.), William Jefferson (La.) and Jim Moran (Va.).
groups plan to target the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) this week.
After a meeting at the White House with Portman, members of the Hispanic
Alliance for Free Trade, a relatively new group lobbying for CAFTA, will
visit at least thirty House offices Thursday, said Anne Alonzo, a lobbyist
with the National Free Trade Council, which is a member of the alliance.
Of the 21 members of the CHC, 14 have publicly declared their opposition.
One, Cuellar, is in favor.
Alonzo said the Hispanic Alliance is
targeting members with high Hispanic populations in their
Several sources working to pass CAFTA said they held
hopes that Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the Ways and
Means Committee, would vote for the measure during its expected committee
consideration next week. Rangel has a sizable Dominican population in his
Harlem district and has long enjoyed strong ties with the Dominican
Rangel, however, recently issued a statement saying that
he strongly supports the right free-trade agreement with Central America
and the Dominican Republic but that the current agreement lacks even the
most basic standards of common decency and fairness for working
Even without Rangel, CAFTA is likely to sail through the
committee with the support of Republicans and Jefferson. Rep. John Tanner
(D-Tenn.), one of the 25 Democrats to vote yes on trade-promotion
authority, is also reportedly in play.
A mock mark-up of the trade
pact is tentatively scheduled for next week.
CAFTA supporters were
also optimistic that several members from districts in the Carolinas with
strong textile interests, such as Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), would be
swayed by the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) endorsement
of CAFTA. Coble voted against trade-promotion authority in
The pro-CAFTA lobby will hold a coalition meeting with House
Republican Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) on Thursday. The Business Roundtable, a
group of chief executives of large American companies, said it is planning
a major lobby day this