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Bush, Latin American Leaders Lobby Support for CAFTA


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today, Latin American leaders are meeting President Bush at the White House. They're trying to win approval for a trade agreement that the president signed almost a year ago. The Central American Free Trade Agreement has strong support from corporate leaders and the White House, but it does not take effect without approval from Congress. And as NPR's David Welna reports, lawmakers do not seem eager to embrace it.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

The six presidents from Central America and the Dominican Republic were at the US Capitol yesterday, posing for a photo with members of Congress. The three lawmakers who showed up for the photo op were all Republicans and they were joined later by Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist. But in what may have reflected a general leeriness on Capitol Hill about endorsing another politically risky trade deal, not one of the Republican lawmakers stopped to take questions from reporters. The task of talking up CAFTA fell to the Latin American leaders. Leonel Fernandez, who's president of the Dominican Republic, was asked whether he detected any support among Democrats for CAFTA.

President LEONEL FERNANDEZ (Dominican Republic): There is support for free trade. There are some concerns and issues related to CAFTA, like, labor rights and environment. And I think that we can follow up on further discussions on how our countries are complying to their concerns.

WELNA: Fernandez, whose Caribbean nation has been added to CAFTA, declared he was optimistic about the prospects for the trade deal's passage on Capitol Hill. Texas House Republican Kevin Brady says that depends on which party you're looking at.

Representative KEVIN BRADY (Republican, Texas): Republicans, overwhelmingly, support this trade agreement. We are hopeful some Democrats won't turn their back on jobs or Central America and will help us pass this.

WELNA: But Democrats are being pressured by organized labor to block CAFTA.

Group: (In unison) CAFTA don't hafta. CAFTA don't hafta.

WELNA: At a rally outside the Capitol this week, scores of union workers railed against CAFTA. They were led by Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO. `Trade deals,' he said, `have killed nearly three million US manufacturing jobs.'

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (AFL-CIO): Congress can turn around our job crisis and they can start by rejecting CAFTA now.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

WELNA: Last week, a centrist coalition of 40 House Democrats who supported other trade pacts stunned Republicans by announcing they cannot support CAFTA as that deal stands today. Their votes are considered crucial for getting the measure approved by the House where fast-track trade negotiating authority won approval by just one vote three years ago. California Democrat Ellen Tauscher heads that group.

Representative ELLEN TAUSCHER (Democrat, California): We're telling the president right now before he sends it up, `Don't send it up. It's not good enough.'

Unidentified Man: Right.

Rep. TAUSCHER: `We're not going to support it. Get a better deal and then we'll look at it.'

WELNA: Perhaps the stickiest point is sugar. CAFTA would allow Central American nations to export nearly twice as much sugar to the US as they're currently allowed. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns was on Capitol Hill this week trying to play down CAFTA's significance for sugar, which he called a very, very protected industry in the US.

Secretary MIKE JOHANNS (Department of Agriculture): How much sugar is involved here? One tablespoon per week per consumer. Stated another way, one day's worth of production. Folks, the passage of CAFTA doesn't involve enough sugar to make a difference in that program.

WELNA: A key player in pushing CAFTA's passage is Republican Senator Charles Grassley. He chairs the Finance Committee, which oversees all trade agreements.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): We're still talking to sugar people, we're talking to sugar senators, and I'm not the only one involved in that. I think people in the administration are doing that.

WELNA: One sugar senator they'll have to persuade is the Republican chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Saxby Chambliss.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): They've got to make some accommodation to the sugar industry relative to the import provision that's in there.

WELNA: Chambliss also fears the CAFTA trade deal could drive the few remaining textile mills in his state of Georgia out of business. With Republicans like him holding back and Democrats almost solidly against CAFTA, North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan says the White House has been forced into a fight it may not win.

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): They're not sure they've got the votes. This may be the first trade agreement that gets killed.

WELNA: And that might not only tarnish the prestige of the president, it would also be a serious setback for achieving the hemispherewide free trade area of the America's pact that free trade proponents have been promising for years.

David Welna, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find analysis of the Central American Trade Deal, including an essay by David Welna, at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.