Opponents still see chance to block Bush on CAFTA

By Doug Palmer
Monday, July 25, 2005; 2:26 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Opponents of a controversial free trade agreement with Central America said on Monday they still see a chance of defeating the pact, despite Bush administration claims it is nearing final victory with a vote this week in the House of Representatives.

"We have as good a shot of stopping this as we did for fast track (trade negotiating) authority for President (Bill) Clinton back in 1997," Scott Paul, a trade lobbyist for the AFL-CIO labor federation, said referring to the union group's last major success in blocking trade legislation.

The White House has found it harder to win approval of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, than any other trade agreement it has negotiated.

Most Democrats oppose CAFTA for reasons ranging from concern about possible job losses to a contention that the pact's labor and environmental provision are too weak for a region with a poor record on workers rights.

Many Republicans from sugar and textile producing states also oppose the pact because of job loss concerns.

In the final days before the House votes -- most likely on Wednesday or Thursday -- both sides are scrambling to win over undecided lawmakers who now control the fate of the pact.

"There are probably about a dozen Democrats who are truly undecided on this and there are probably upward of 20 Republicans who are very torn," Paul said.


Jack Roney, chief economist with the American Sugar Alliance, said he was cautiously optimistic CAFTA would fail by a "razor-thin margin" despite Bush administration efforts to sway Republican members from key sugar states like Florida, Louisiana, Montana and Idaho. "I think our base is staying pretty strong in opposition," Roney said.

A trio of textile-state Republicans -- Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, and Reps. Spencer Bachus and Michael Rogers of Alabama -- were expected to announce their support for CAFTA later on Monday at a news conference.

But most Republicans from North Carolina remain opposed, despite President Bush's visit to that state two weeks ago to argue CAFTA would help both the U.S. and Central American textile industries compete against China.

Christopher Wenk, a trade lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers, said he expected at least a few other textile state lawmakers to follow the lead of Inglis, Bachus and Rogers, who have been working with the Bush administration to resolve CAFTA-related concerns.

However, Rep. Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat with a history of supporting trade agreements, recently joined most of his state's delegation in opposing the trade pact.

Despite that disappointment, manufacturers still expect as many as 20 or more Democrats to vote for CAFTA, Wenk said.

Rep. Melissa Bean, a freshman Democrat from Illinois, recently announced her support, bringing the number of Democrats who publicly support the pact to six.

"I am quite confident we will have the votes to pass CAFTA at the end of the day," Wenk said.