WASHINGTON — A major free trade agreement with Central American nations moved forward in the Senate on Tuesday, although senators put off for another day how to deal with the sugar industry opposition that was the biggest obstacle to passage.
The Senate Finance Committee accepted one change in conjunction with the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA, extending to service workers a federal program to assist those displaced by trade competition.
The panel also rejected, on a 10-10 vote, a proposal by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to ensure that labor laws were enforced, and it did not take up suggested amendments to protect the sugar industry from what it perceived as threats from Central American imports.
The committee later approved the package 11-8. Two Democrats, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, voted for it, while two Republicans, Michael D. Crapo from the sugar beet state of Idaho and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, voted against it.
The House Ways and Means Committee is to take up the legislation today.
The committee actions are part of a procedure under which Congress can recommend minor changes to, but not alter the substance of, trade agreements negotiated by the administration. The administration, which need not accept the changes, then formally submits the accord to Congress, which has up to 90 legislative days to approve or reject it.
The Bush administration signed CAFTA a year ago with five Central American nations -- Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua -- with the Dominican Republic added later.
It eliminates, either immediately or over time, almost all tariffs on U.S. manufactured and farm goods sold to the region and commits those countries to opening up their service and telecommunications industries and better protecting intellectual property.
It faces opposition from many Democrats, who say labor and environmental protections in the agreement are weak, as well as from lawmakers who link free trade accords to the loss of American jobs and from lawmakers from sugar industry states in the South and West.