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How Cafta Passed House by 2 Votes

By Edmund L. Andrews

The New York Times

Friday 29 July 2005

"Once again, the floor of the House of Representatives resembled the set of 'Let's Make a Deal,' " Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.

Washington - It was just before midnight on Wednesday when Representative Robin Hayes capitulated.

Mr. Hayes, a Republican whose district in North Carolina has lost thousands of textile jobs in the last four years, had defied President Bush and House Republican leaders by voting against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or Cafta.

But the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, told him they needed his vote anyway. If he switched from "nay" to "aye," Mr. Hayes recounted, Mr. Hastert promised to push for whatever steps he felt were necessary to restrict imports of Chinese clothing, which has been flooding into the United States in recent months.

As it turned out, the switch by Mr. Hayes was decisive. Within a few minutes, the House approved the trade pact by the paper-thin margin of two votes, 217 to 215. The pact would eliminate most trade barriers between the United States and Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The cliffhanger House vote was one of the most wrenching in Congress this year, and it highlighted the messy compromises that were necessary to overcome deep antagonism in many quarters toward trade-opening agreements.

The restrictions Mr. Hastert promised could come soon. Within the next 10 days, the Bush administration is expected to rule on whether to impose import quotas on Chinese sweaters, wool trousers, bras and other goods.

Mr. Hastert "said to me, 'If you vote with me, we'll do everything we need to do in your district to help with jobs,' " Mr. Hayes recalled.

Democrats charged Republicans with buying votes and forcing members to vote against their consciences.

But Bush administration officials said the ultimate goal was one of high principle: an opening of the United States to greater competition and engagement with poorer countries in its own backyard, a liberation from trade barriers that would benefit Americans as well as their neighbors.

"This became much bigger than Cafta, because it became a political issue," said Rob Portman, the United States trade representative. "It was important to our position as the global leader on trade, so we had to fight back, and to fight back meant being very aggressive, explaining why it was good."

Trade agreements have almost always been difficult to pass, because any reduction in barriers provokes intense opposition from unions and industries that would face new competition.

But the Central American trade pact became a litmus test for both parties, a precedent for both the opportunities and dangers of freer international trade.

In economic terms, the Central American trade pact will have a negligible impact on the United States. About 80 percent of the exports from those countries to the United States were already duty-free, and the total trade volumes are tiny: American exports to the six countries - about $17 billion a year - are about equal to the annual global exports of New Jersey.

Supporters of the trade pact said it was the principles at stake, a reaffirmation and an expansion of the much bigger North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 that linked the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Like Nafta, the Central American free trade pact will eliminate most barriers to trade in goods and services and most barriers to investment. It will give American companies tough new legal rights to enforce patents and copyrights in other member countries, and it may give some pharmaceutical companies even greater protection against generic drugs in Central America than they have in the United States.

But labor unions and their Democratic allies charge that the pact offers strong backing to corporations while offering little additional protection to low-wage workers in Central America. As a result, they contend, it will encourage American companies to shift more jobs to those countries.

Whatever the economic merits, the vote on Wednesday night made it clear that the political appeal of the trade agreement was low. Only 15 Democrats supported the measure.

And despite intense pressure from President Bush and House Republican leaders, 27 Republicans voted against the deal; many others badly wanted to do so.

The biggest opposition among Republicans came from textile producing states in the south, sugar-producing states like Louisiana and Idaho and old-line manufacturing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

House Republican leaders kept the voting open for almost a full hour, in violation of the normal 15-minute time limit. They spent much of that time wrestling with about 10 rebellious but "undecided" Republicans, pleading and pressuring one after another to vote for the agreement.

One of the strangest votes was by Representative Charles H. Taylor, Republican of North Carolina, who had vowed to vote against the pact because of his concerns for textile workers.

But as the minutes ticked by, Mr. Taylor was one of only two members recorded as not voting. By not voting, he gave Republicans a two-vote victory rather than a one-vote margin.

But on Thursday, Mr. Taylor insisted that there had been an error in the electronic voting system and that he had indeed voted against the measure.

"I voted NO," Mr. Taylor announced in a terse statement on Thursday, saying the House clerk's written log showed his vote and that he would seek to have the vote registered as a "no."

Democrats, who have already lined up a potent challenger to Mr. Taylor for the next election, accused him of trying to have it both ways.

"He seemed to find time to vote for procedural motions and legislation that had nothing to do with North Carolina," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, "but he couldn't seem to figure out how to squeeze in the time to vote against a trade deal that could cost North Carolina thousands of jobs."

But business groups, including even some parts of the textile industry, lobbied fiercely in favor of the trade pact. The National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation all supported the agreement and pushed hard.

One Republican who agonized over the vote was Representative Mark Foley of Florida, whose district includes some of the biggest sugar producers in the country.

Mr. Foley, a member of the House leadership team responsible for lining up votes, supported the bill even though he staunchly opposed the pact because it would allow higher sugar imports.

"It was difficult, a gut-wrenching night," Mr. Foley said on Thursday. President Bush called him about 8:20 p.m. Wednesday to plead for his vote, he said, and Republican leaders had already made it clear that they would punish the sugar industry in the next farm bill if they managed to defeat the trade pact.

"If the administration thinks that sugar brought about the demise of this, there would have been hell to pay in the farm bill," Mr. Foley said. "This was somewhat of a vote for the survival of my constituents."

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, accused Republican leaders of trading anything they had to get the votes they needed.

"Once again, the floor of the House of Representatives resembled the set of 'Let's Make a Deal,' " Ms. Pelosi said Thursday.

"What was the cost to the US taxpayer for the president, with all of his power and all of his influence at his disposal, what was the cost to US taxpayers of his very slim margin?"

The full answer will not be known for some time. Opponents of the trade pact said Republicans lured many lawmakers by earmarking billions of dollars for pet projects in a $286 billion highway spending bill.

The House and Senate conferees said they had reached agreement on the overall transportation bill, but as of Thursday night they had not made any details public.


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(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. t r u t h o u t has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is t r u t h o u t endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

Edited by Terry Mauro
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