YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Senate Committee Gives Its OK to CAFTA

The endorsement buoys supporters of the Latin American trade pact. A greater hurdle will come when the House takes up the measure in July.

June 30, 2005|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Senate supporters of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a market-opening deal with six Latin American nations, predicted victory Wednesday after the pact was endorsed by a crucial committee.

President Bush and his top trade officials have lobbied hard for CAFTA, but it has drawn tenacious opposition from lawmakers who believe their states would be hurt.

A Senate vote could come as early as today.

The greater hurdle will come when the House takes up the measure next month. House Democrats who object to what they say are weak labor rights provisions in the agreement will be joined in opposition by Republicans with ties to groups, most notably the sugar industry, that contend they will be hurt by CAFTA.

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday gave its approval on a voice vote to the agreement signed a year ago with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

"Step by step, we're making good progress and building momentum for its successful passage," said U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who has led the effort to sway undecided lawmakers.

He picked up a key vote Wednesday when Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), a Finance Committee member, announced his support after receiving a pledge from Portman of increased spending to protect Central American workers and farmers.

Portman, in a letter to Bingaman, said the administration was committed to spending $160 million over four years to promote labor and environmental laws, as well as $150 million over five years to help subsistence farmers in three Central American countries who might be displaced by an increase in U.S. agriculture imports.

The Bush administration has so far succeeded in enacting free trade agreements with Singapore, Chile, Australia and Morocco, but CAFTA has been far more difficult, mainly because of near-united Democratic opposition. Democrats say provisions on labor rights are weak and will lead to a continuation of abuses such as child labor and crackdowns on organized labor.

They also say trade deals, such as the 1994 accord with Mexico and Canada, have exacerbated the U.S. trade deficit and the flight of U.S. jobs overseas.

CAFTA would end trade barriers now encountered by U.S. goods in the six countries, which already enjoy open access to the U.S. market. It also would clarify investment rules, strengthen protections for intellectual property and, according to supporters, solidify economic and democratic stability in a region that has been racked by recent civil wars.

Portman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns have also been meeting this week with lawmakers from sugar-growing states and representatives of the sugar industry in an attempt to mollify their fears that increased imports from CAFTA countries, while small, would open the way for a foreign onslaught on the industry.

Two senators who had previously criticized the agreement, Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), said Wednesday that the administration concessions to protect the industry were enough to win their votes. Those included a pilot program to determine whether a sugar-based ethanol initiative is feasible.

Los Angeles Times Articles