US House approves CAFTA

The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) early Thursday, overcoming objections by unions, sugar producers and textile makers in what was the most contentious trade fight in Congress in more than a decade. Now the pact is closer to law.

The vote was 217-215 in favor of CAFTA, in an hour-long vote held just after midnight in Washington. With only a minor procedural step in the Senate ahead, the vote effectively completes a yearlong battle for U.S. ratification of CAFTA.

However, opposition to the deal had remained strong ahead of the vote.

Only 15 of the 202 Democrats in the House voted for the measure, a record low for a trade agreement. While Democrats objected to Cafta because of what they characterized as weak labor provisions, many in the party used the legislation to show dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush's trade policies, according to Bloomberg.

Democrats "picked this to make their stand," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, a California Republican. "When someone else decides that this is make or break, you better make sure that they are the ones that break." But supporters said CAFTA would eventually eliminate tariffs currently imposed on US sales in Central America.

"We cannot claim to be fighting for American jobs and yet turn our backs on 44 million new customers in Central America," Republican Representative Kevin Brady of Texas was quoted as saying by BBC.

Along with the six new nations within Cafta - and the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico - the US currently has free trade agreements with Australia, Chile, Singapore, Jordan and Israel.

It took personal visits from the president and vice president, along with strenuous arm-twisting from Republican leaders, before the House passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the AP reports.

CAFTA ends most tariffs on more than $33 billion in goods traded between the U.S. and Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. That includes removing duties on 80 percent of the $15 billion in annual U.S. exports to the region and making permanent the duty-free access to the U.S. that most products from Central America already have.

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