WASHINGTON, Wednesday, June 29, 2005, The Associated Press as reported
by CropChoice.com: A Senate committee on Wednesday
approved a trade agreement with Latin American nations,
moving Congress a step closer to a decision on an accord
that may have minimal effects on the U.S. economy but
is of considerable political import to the Bush administration.
The Finance Committee approved the agreement by a voice
vote, although it was closely divided on the issue.
The bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote as early
as this week. Passage in the Senate, traditionally more
sympathetic to trade agreements, could give the measure
some momentum in the House, where there is stiffer opposition.
The Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA,
would end trade barriers now encountered by U.S. goods
in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua
and the Dominican Republic. It also would ease investment
rules, strengthen protections for intellectual property
and, according to supporters, solidify economic and
democratic stability in the region.
But the agreement has run into vigorous opposition
from labor groups, and their Democratic allies, who
say its provisions on labor rights are weak, and from
the U.S. sugar industry, which claims that an increase
in Central American imports, while small, could open
the door to ruin.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a key undecided vote on
the Finance Committee, announced he was supporting the
pact after the administration answered some of his concerns
about the "serious lack of attention to the enforcement
of worker rights."
He said he had pledges of $160 million over four years
to promote labor and environmental laws. The administration
also told him it will spend $150 million over five years
to help subsistence farmers in three Central American
countries who might be displaced by an increase in U.S.
The Bush administration has waged a relentless lobbying
effort in the past month. President Bush invited all
six CAFTA presidents to the White House and hailed the
agreement in several recent speeches to Hispanic-American
and other groups. U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman
and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns are constantly
on Capitol Hill, talking to undecided lawmakers.
Johanns met Monday with senators and representatives
of the sugar industry, and again on Tuesday with lawmakers,
to discuss proposals to assure that CAFTA will not undermine
the industry's future viability. Those plans included
the government buying up increased sugar cane imports
from Central America to be used in the production of
ethanol. Republican Sen. Craig Thomas, whose state of
Wyoming has a large sugar beet industry, told the Finance
Committee that "it distresses me a little"
that only now, when a final vote on CAFTA is looming,
is the administration getting serious about the sugar
But Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., suggested that there
could be repercussions for the industry, always well-protected
by Congress, if it succeeded in scuttling the agreement.
"This could be devastating to them if not handled
right," he said.
The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Max Baucus
of sugar beet-growing Montana, opposes CAFTA, breaking
with his usual support of trade agreements.
In addition to saying that the agreement was bad for
the sugar industry, he criticized the administration
for rejecting a proposal to help U.S. service industry
workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition
and for not consulting more with Congress.
"They appear to want to win by the thinnest of
margins," he said.