Posted on Mon, Jul. 25, 2005

House votes starting to firm up on CAFTA
Representatives from N.C., S.C. seem to go in opposite directions

House votes starting to firm up on CAFTA Representatives from N.C., S.C. seem to go in opposite directions The House is expected to vote on CAFTA this week, so representatives who were leaners or undecideds have begun to decide.

In the N.C. congressional delegation, a few "leaning no's" have hardened into "heck, no's."

Among S.C. representatives, it's going the other way: President Bush may pick up a few "yes" votes, starting today.

Before I name names, let's review:

CAFTA = Central America Free Trade Agreement. Nationally, most House Republicans are for it and most House Democrats are against it.

But in the Carolinas, it's not a party-line issue. At least five House Republicans from North Carolina plan to vote against it.

Many workers blame trade deals -- starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement -- for the loss of hundreds of thousands of textile and manufacturing jobs over the past decade. And they're worried CAFTA will entice many companies to relocate their factories to Central America, where labor costs are a fraction of what they are in the States.

Those who back CAFTA -- including many farmers and business leaders in the Carolinas -- say it would boost U.S. products in Latin America by opening up markets and removing tariffs.

The Senate recently approved CAFTA, 54-45. Voting yes: Sens. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Voting no: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The word is that the House tally will be much closer. In fact, many counters say the White House still doesn't have enough votes. That will likely mean a lot of horse-trading in the coming days as House leaders and the president's lobbyists offer anything -- get-tough-with-China initiatives, highway money, campaign help next year -- to pick up last-minute votes. So far, only one House member from the Carolinas -- Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., of Charlotte -- has come out for CAFTA.

That is likely to change today: Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., of Travelers Rest is expected to endorse the trade agreement at a news conference. Sources say Rep. J. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., of Westminster -- a "leaning no" in the Observer's June survey of local members of Congress -- is also a good bet to switch to "yes."

But among N.C. representatives, CAFTA is still a hard sell.

When the president traveled to Gaston County this month to promote the trade agreement, only Myrick stood by his side.

Two of her neighboring colleagues have since shifted from "leaning no" to "no."

Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., of Concord, was at a military base in Kentucky when Bush came to North Carolina to plug CAFTA.

"I am flat-out, completely, horizontally opposed to CAFTA," Hayes told me. "What I was doing early on was at least looking and listening, to see if the improvements that we have begun to get in a whole host of different areas on trade were going to continue. And they have. But, given the nature of our district and the (textile) folks who have suffered there, (the Bush administration) has just not been able to do enough so that it becomes the right vote for the 8th District."

Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., of Cherryville, is also now a "no" vote, according to his office. Caldwell County is still reeling from news that Broyhill Furniture Industries will soon lay off hundreds of workers. On the day the president visited North Carolina, McHenry was meeting with Caldwell officials, his office reported.

Two N.C. Democrats also recently announced their intentions to vote against CAFTA.

In the Observer's June survey, Rep. Bobby Etheridge, D-N.C., of Lillington, had been undecided; Rep. David Price, D-N.C., of Chapel Hill, had been leaning no.

Still undecided as of late last week: Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., of Charlotte.