GOP Seeks House Support on CAFTA

House leaders are fighting to win over Republicans who are undecided in the debate over the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas is hoping to bring the bill to the floor Wednesday.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The House of Representatives will vote this week on the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. The Bush administration and congressional Republicans are pushing hard for the pact, twisting arms in hopes of winning smooth passage of the bill. But the opposition is fired up and, as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, the debate over CAFTA will be anything but smooth.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

CAFTA is modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, that in the mid-1990s united Mexico, Canada and the US under one trade pact. CAFTA would eliminate trade tariffs between the US, Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. President Bush wants CAFTA and is pressing members of Congress for it. That's why the opposition gathered today in the thick, hot air of a Washington summer. California Democrat Brad Sherman urged his colleagues to hold strong against that pressure.

Representative BRAD SHERMAN (Democrat, California): They will promise, they will bribe if they can get away with it.

SEABROOK: Sherman said if the opposition holds...

Rep. SHERMAN: ...CAFTA is going down.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

SEABROOK: Inside the cool stone Capitol Building, Republican leaders were having their own rally, this one with Hispanic-American business leaders.

Representative ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (Republican, Florida): (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: `A vote for CAFTA is a vote for the Hispanic community,' declared Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. That's because, she and others said, it would tear down trade barriers between Latinos in the US and their neighbors to the south. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert said CAFTA wouldn't only benefit Hispanics.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois; Speaker of the House): Opening foreign markets is good for American workers and it's good for American business. And we all know when business does well, jobs are created.

SEABROOK: And Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez made the Bush administration's case that Americans should feel loyal to the CAFTA nations.

Secretary CARLOS GUTIERREZ (Commerce Department): These six countries voted in our favor to go to war with Iraq. You can't say that about everyone around the world.

SEABROOK: But even as Republican leaders were pressing hard for CAFTA, many rank-and-file Republicans were still trying to decide how to vote on it, and a few are adamantly opposed. That's, in part, why a bill to enforce trade regulations with China, thought to be a no-brainer, failed today. Leaders had set it up as a kind of test vote on CAFTA, and they're not happy with the outcome. Many who rallied on the Capitol lawn today in opposition said CAFTA would only bring more of what they say NAFTA brought: outsourcing and job losses, especially in manufacturing. And, like Louisiana Democrat Charlie Melancon, many dispute the idea that Central Americans are going to be able to buy US products.

Representative CHARLIE MELANCON (Democrat, Louisiana): They're not going to buy any Omaha Steaks. They're not going to buy any Dell computers. They can't afford it.

SEABROOK: Protesters waved signs saying `Support free and fair trade' and `Hafta stop CAFTA.' They say the trade pact would benefit only big corporations and would drag down labor and environmental standards in the US and abroad. And so Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, the leader of the anti-CAFTA fight, appealed to lawmakers not to cave to Republican leaders' pressure.

Representative SHERROD BROWN (Democrat, Ohio): CAFTA has languished in Congress for more than a year because it was crafted by a select few for a select few and because it offends so many.

SEABROOK: On one thing both sides agree: CAFTA is just a small battle in a larger war. Put together, the six countries involved trade about as much with the US as the Netherlands does. But CAFTA would be the crucial next puzzle piece in a larger free-trade area spanning much of the Americas. This is what businesses and many Republicans very much want and what labor and many Democrats are wary of. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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