CAFTA arouses severe debate

The U.S. Congress approved a free-trade agreement with Central America on Thursday, handing President George W. Bush a hard-fought victory in difficult times for efforts to expand global trade. The grueling struggle over the Central American Free Trade Agreement revealed a deep and growing skepticism of free trade among members of Congress.

In marked contrast to NAFTA, a far weightier trade pact that attracted broad support from both parties when it passed Congress 12 years ago, CAFTA barely squeaked by the House in a 217-215 vote Thursday.

The Republican-controlled House voted 217-215 in favor of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, early on Thursday morning after a final push by Bush and top aides to win over many reluctant Republicans.

Only 15 of the House's 202 Democrats backed CAFTA, and 27 Republicans opposed it.

The Senate voted 56-44 late on Thursday to send CAFTA to Bush to sign into law. Senators had approved the agreement in June, but had to vote again because the Constitution requires tariff bills to start in the House, Reuters informs.

The Democrats' determination to deal a blow to President Bush's trade agenda and a fierce campaign by the sugar lobby eroded support for the bill. But it was hurt more by the perceived link between globalization and American job losses and claims that China has used unfair tactics to boost its exports to the U.S, according to Houston Chronicle.

"There's a lot of concern about globalization generally," said Joe McKinney, an economist at Baylor University. "The economic situation is changing faster than it did in the past because of the power of technological change and the globalization that technology made possible."

The legislative battle was over a deal likely to have a modest impact on the U.S. economy. Eighty percent of imports from CAFTA already enter the U.S. duty-free, and the CAFTA countries represent relatively small export markets.

But the benefits fall unevenly, and many lawmakers were more concerned with their districts than fostering free trade.

"CAFTA may benefit the state of Texas as a whole," Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, whose district is predominantly blue-collar was quoted as saying by New York Times.

"But there's a group that doesn't benefit, and it is the one I represent," Green added.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., predicted it would be a "Pyrrhic victory" for Bush.

Under Bush, "we have lost millions of manufacturing jobs," she said. "As our manufacturing base erodes, as our industrial base erodes, we have a president who is contributing to the further erosion of that base."

"It is a step backward for workers in Central America and a job-killer here at home," Nancy Pelosi was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Bush had urged Republicans at a meeting on Wednesday to put aside "parochial interests" and argued CAFTA would increase regional prosperity and reduce illegal immigration, said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.

Some Republicans were unmoved.

"I told President Bush that my late mom was a textile worker," said Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican. "And when textile workers ... plead with me to vote against CAFTA, I said to the president 'it's my momma talking to me and I cannot turn a deaf ear to those pleas.'"

Some textile-state lawmakers, however, argued the agreement would help the U.S. and Central American textile industries compete against China and other Asian suppliers.

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