Fri, Jul 29, 2005 - Page 1 News List

US House passes Central American FTA by a whisker

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

The US House of Representatives narrowly approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement early yesterday, which allows President George W. Bush to put his signature to the nation's biggest reduction of trade barriers in more than 10 years.

After one of the hardest-fought legislative battles of the year, Republican leaders were able to cut enough political deals to overcome fears among many of their own members about foreign competition and push ahead despite opposition from most Democrats, labor unions and the sugar industry's powerful lobby.

The vote, 217-215, came almost a month after the Senate approved the trade pact and gave Bush a crucial victory that had seemed in doubt a few days ago. As recently as Tuesday, fewer than half of Republican lawmakers had publicly endorsed the pact and almost all Democrats were planning to vote against it.

But the end result did not come without some drama. The voting took almost an hour as Republicans pressured about eight to 10 very reluctant members. The count seemed to stall after about 30 minutes with the tally at 214 in favor and 211 against and a handful of mostly Republican votes outstanding.

For the next half-hour, Republicans, mostly from textile states, jockeyed over who would be allowed to vote against the bill and save face back home. The final count came minutes after midnight.

Within minutes of the vote, the White House released a statement from Bush praising the action.

"By lowering trade barriers to American goods in Central American markets to a level now enjoyed by their goods in the US, this agreement will level the playing field and help American workers, farmers and small businesses," he said in the statement.

Passage of the bill came only after intense pressure from Bush, who made a last-minute trip to the Capitol on Wednesday morning, and after deals with reluctant lawmakers from textile-producing states, sugar-growing areas and industrial states like Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The pact would eliminate most barriers to trade and investment between the US, the Dominican Republic and the Central American nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Brimming with confidence, House Republican leaders declared that the pact would benefit the US as well as the impoverished countries of Central America and that they could win approval without significant help from Democrats.

"Tonight, we have the opportunity to be the progressive, aggressive good-neighbor party," said Republican Representative Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "We will not be the ones who say for 40 years that we want to help and then heel to the protectionist movement."

The immediate economic impact of the trade agreement is likely to be small, at least for the US, because the combined economies of the six countries are equivalent to only about 1 percent of the US economy.

But the political impact is likely to loom much larger. To supporters and opponents alike, the pact became a political symbol over how best to respond to globalization, competition from low-wage countries and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US.

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