Bush Backs CAFTA on Capitol Hill

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President Bush urges Republican House members to support the Central America Free Trade Agreement during a rare trip to Capitol Hill. A vote on the measure, which may come Wednesday, is expected to be close and may be held open until the wee hours of the morning.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush made a rare visit to Capitol Hill today. He and Vice President Cheney both spoke at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans. It was a show of force GOP leaders hope will swing enough votes to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, later tonight. Democrats say they are all but united in opposition, so even a handful of wavering Republicans could put the outcome in doubt. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

As President Bush made his way to the House Republican meeting, he walked in step with Speaker Dennis Hastert, and he smiled at the gathered scrum of press bristling with questions.

Unidentified Reporter #1: Good morning, Mr. President.

Unidentified Reporter #2: Mr. President, do you have the votes for CAFTA, sir?

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Good morning.

Unidentified Reporter #3: Good morning.

Pres. BUSH: Good morning, everybody.

Unidentified Reporter #2: Do you have the votes for CAFTA?

Pres. BUSH: Nice to see ya.

SEABROOK: Mr. Bush had no words for the media after his meeting, though he did give a thumbs-up on his way out. But Republican Conference Chair Deborah Price of Ohio called the visit a success.

Representative DEBORAH PRICE (Republican, Ohio; Chair, Republican Conference): The president spent over an hour thanking House Republicans for all the hard work we've done, all our great accomplishments and spent the last half-hour talking about how important CAFTA is, why it's so important on a national level, on an economic level but, most important, on a national security level.

SEABROOK: CAFTA would unite Central American countries and the Dominican Republic in a trade deal with the US, getting rid of tariffs and opening new markets. The president told Republicans today that it would help protect the United States by creating jobs in Central America and slowing the tide of immigration to the US. But Republican leaders still have to convince more members. Some in their own ranks squarely oppose the trade pact on the grounds that it would cause even more jobs to leave the US, especially in manufacturing. And they won't get many votes from Democrats, which angers Republican Leader Tom DeLay.

Representative TOM DeLAY (Republican, Texas; Majority Leader): We find ourselves today with a Democrat leadership and a Democrat Caucus that has browbeaten their members into voting against their principle for political sake.

Representative BOB MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey; Chair, Democratic Caucus): We are overwhelmingly united against the agreement, not because of politics but because of policy. This is bad policy for America.

SEABROOK: Democratic Caucus Chair Bob Menendez of New Jersey says CAFTA would only exacerbate Central America's biggest problem: the giant gulf in living standards between rich business owners and poor laborers. And Democrats say that could destabilize the region and actually harm US national security. So with most Democrats and some Republicans against it, how will Republican leaders get this through the House?

Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York; Rules Committee): What you learned in school about how a law is passed, forget about that. We don't do it anymore.

SEABROOK: New York Democrat Louise Slaughter, the ranking member of the Rules Committee, says during floor action tonight Republicans will allow no amendments on the bill, no Democratic alternative and no more than two hours of debate.

Rep. SLAUGHTER: And I will tell you that when we talk about exporting democracy--and I think about that a lot, since that seems to be the theme around here--I don't know what kind of democracy it is they're exporting. If people are watching what's going on here, it's not what we all learned and what we believe we have here. And it's getting worse.

SEABROOK: Republicans say this is nothing more than sour grapes. They're running the show, they say, and so they'll use every tool in the shed to get their agenda passed. Majority Leader DeLay said tonight is the night.

Rep. DeLAY: It will be a tough vote, but we will pass CAFTA tonight. We will honor our commitments to our neighbors to the south. We will protect our national security, and we will do it all with very few Democrats on board.

SEABROOK: Asked how long Republicans will hold open the vote tonight beyond the usual 15 minutes, DeLay said he'll hold it until they get the votes they need. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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