WASHINGTON — The House voted late Wednesday to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement, handing President Bush a hard-fought victory on a measure with limited economic effects but large political consequences.
CAFTA, approved 217 to 215 after about three hours of contentious debate and a roll call that lasted longer than an hour, will remove most trade barriers between the United States and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
The trade pact was approved by the Senate last month, 54 to 45. Most of its provisions take effect immediately; the rest will be phased in over 20 years.
The late-night House vote capped weeks of high-pressure lobbying and deal-making by Bush administration officials, Republican leaders in Congress and outside business groups who viewed CAFTA's approval as essential to advancing U.S. commercial interests, foreign policy goals and GOP political objectives.
"CAFTA is a little trade agreement with small economic consequences for our country," Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) said shortly before the roll was called. "But it is a huge national security issue with enormous implications for our entire foreign policy."
The measure was fiercely opposed by most congressional Democrats and some Republicans who considered its labor and environmental provisions lacking and who saw the pact as emblematic of problems associated with globalization, including U.S. job losses and China's economic gains.
"It is a step backward for workers in Central America, and a job-killer here at home," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). The agreement "hurts U.S. workers ... and fails to protect the environment," she said.
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), the Ways and Means Committee chairman who steered the bill through the House, said the near-unanimous opposition of Democrats would help the Republican Party solidify its political gains of recent years.
"I wondered when this moment would come. Apparently it comes tonight," Thomas said before declaring an end to debate. "Tonight ... we mature into a permanent majority. We will lead. We will be progressive. We will help our neighbors."
Supporters acknowledged that CAFTA's economic impact would be relatively small. Total two-way trade between the United States and the six other CAFTA countries is $32 billion a year, a tiny slice of America's $11-trillion economy.
But CAFTA's political symbolism loomed large.
Congress has not rejected a major trade pact in more than four decades, and CAFTA's defeat could have undermined Bush's efforts to encourage the spread of democracy to combat terrorism, and to negotiate bigger hemispheric and global trade agreements.
CAFTA was also seen as an important test of Bush's ability to steer major legislation through Congress in his second term. The president's top domestic priority, Social Security restructuring, has stalled in the face of unexpectedly strong opposition and lukewarm Republican support.
Bush applauded the House for approving the pact.
"This agreement will level the playing field and help American workers, farmers and small businesses," he said in a statement. "The agreement is more than a trade bill; it is a commitment of freedom-loving nations to advance peace and prosperity throughout the Western Hemisphere."
In the hours leading up to the floor vote, political operatives and congressional aides on both sides of the issue said it remained unclear whether the White House had sewn up enough votes to ensure CAFTA's passage.
The GOP leadership held the vote open for more than an hour, well beyond its scheduled 15-minute expiration. Onlookers gazed from the galleries and members milled about on the floor as leaders rounded up the last few votes they needed to put CAFTA over the top.
In the end, 202 Republicans voted for CAFTA and 27 against it. Most of the GOP defectors represented districts with small manufacturers, textile makers or sugar growers that feared they would be hurt by CAFTA's provisions.
On the other side of the aisle, 15 Democrats voted for the agreement and 187 against, along with one independent. The opponents included a number of pro-trade Democrats who had backed previous agreements, a reflection of the slippage that has occurred since Bush took office.
Two members -- Republicans from Virginia and North Carolina -- did not vote. The House has one vacancy.
The California delegation split along party lines, with all Republicans supporting the pact and all Democrats opposing it.
Many of the opponents cited the disillusionment that followed approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the landmark 1994 accord that eliminated trade barriers with Canada and Mexico and was blamed for subsequent losses of factory jobs, particularly in the textile and apparel industries.
"CAFTA is NAFTA's ugly cousin," Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) said.