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Bush seeks to sew up CAFTA support in NC

LA Times, Los Angeles

Bush Seeks to Sew Up CAFTA Support in N.C.

Workers and lawmakers in the textile belt fear that the deal, which is the president’s trade priority, will send more production abroad.

By Warren Vieth, Times Staff Writer

16 July 2005

DALLAS, N.C. - President Bush traveled to the heart of the nation’s battered textile belt Friday to try to rescue a Central American trade pact that has become a test of his ability to keep a 40-year streak of congressional trade deal ratifications intact.

Addressing an audience of mill workers and others, Bush said the Central American Free Trade Agreement would not endanger their jobs but rather would make them more secure by removing barriers to exports of the yarn and fabric the workers produced.

"CAFTA is good for U.S. jobs. CAFTA means textile jobs will stay right here in the United States of America," Bush said in his remarks at a community college in Dallas, a small city near Charlotte, N.C. "In other words, this is a jobs program we’re talking about."

Bush’s trip was part of a campaign by the White House and its allies to win congressional approval of the pact, which would eliminate most trade barriers between the United States and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Although CAFTA’s economic impact would be slight, affecting $15 billion in annual U.S. exports, it has huge symbolic and political significance. The pact has come to stand for rising discontent with Bush’s trade policies, China’s rapid economic ascent, the outsourcing of U.S. jobs and other side effects of globalization.

The Senate voted 54 to 45 last month to ratify CAFTA. The House is expected to take up the agreement this month, and congressional vote counters say the White House is still short of a majority. If the vote were held today, they said, only 10 or so Democrats would back the accord and as many as 40 Republicans would vote against it.

Many Democrats say the agreement’s labor and environmental protections are inadequate. Such opponents have been joined by Republicans from textile- and sugar-producing regions. Sugar growers oppose CAFTA provisions that would relax import quotas that keep U.S. sugar prices higher than world prices.

A defeat of CAFTA would mark the first time Congress rejected a major trade agreement in more than four decades. It would be regarded as an embarrassing setback for Bush’s efforts to negotiate bigger deals, including hemispheric and global trade accords.

"This will be an enormous loss for the whole corporate globalization outsourcing lobby," said Jim Schollaert, outreach director for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which opposes the pact. "Defeat them on CAFTA and there will be a whole reevaluation in Washington of the political dynamics of the trade issue."

Bush made his CAFTA pitch in a region that had been unusually hard-hit by globalization. North Carolina has lost 235,600 factory jobs, many of them at textile, apparel and furniture plants, since 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement. More than 400 of its textile mills have shut down since NAFTA.

"We had a bad experience with NAFTA," Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said. "North Carolinians remember that experience, and we’re still suffering the effects of it. We believe CAFTA will be not much different from NAFTA."

Butterfield, a first-term lawmaker, said he would vote against the Central American pact.

But Bush said that CAFTA, besides opening up Latin American markets with 44 million consumers, would advance U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives in a region still struggling to emerge from years of authoritarian rule.

"It will help stabilize democracies, and it will help our friends grow and prosper," Bush said. "And that’s good. That’s in our interests that we do just that."

Bush has made ratification his trade priority this year. Besides stumping for the agreement himself, he has dispatched Cabinet members to Capitol Hill and sent them on the road to drum up public support and congressional votes.

The administration has promised wavering lawmakers, for example, that it will toughen its trade policy toward China, a pledge criticized by Democrats as irrelevant to Central American trade.

"There’s no connection between the two issues, and linking them weakens both," Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said in an interview.

The administration has enlisted allies in the business community, and some are joining the campaign with vigor. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue recently rattled some lawmakers by suggesting that a vote against CAFTA could cost them campaign contributions.

Lawmakers and political observers said Bush appeared to be making little headway in North Carolina, where all but two of the state’s 13 House members - seven Republicans, six Democrats - have either declared opposition to CAFTA or told colleagues they planned to vote against it. The only declared supporter is Republican Sue Myrick, whose district Bush visited Friday.

One North Carolina representative, Democrat David E. Price, voted for NAFTA, China trade normalization and recent pacts with Morocco, Australia, Singapore and Chile. But after weeks of uncertainty, Price announced Wednesday that he would vote against CAFTA, saying he considered its worker protections inadequate.

Price voted against Bush’s request for "fast track" trade negotiating authority in 2001 because he thought the president should have done more to address concerns of pro-trade Democrats like himself about labor and environmental standards in developing countries.

"I don’t think they’ve learned a thing" since the showdown over fast-track, he said. The measure squeaked through the House by a single vote.

Levin said the administration erred in trying to build a majority for CAFTA with Republicans instead of giving Democrats a voice in the treaty as it was negotiated.

"They’re paying the price for going their own way," he said.

The result, he said, is a trade deal that provides no protections to the poor workers of Central America - which he said was a shortcoming that would work to the disadvantage of the United States as well. "If workers in Central America are not going to have access to internal rights to organize and bargain collectively," Levin said, "they aren’t going to have the money to buy American goods."

Not all textile makers oppose CAFTA. Before his speech, Bush toured one of the nation’s oldest yarn plants, in nearby Belmont, where he plucked a wad of cotton from a bale and visited with a worker who was standing beside a big spinning machine. The plant’s owners, R. L. Stowe Mills Inc., support the trade pact.

"The textile manufacturers agree with me that the United States House of Representatives, for the good of American workers, ought to pass CAFTA legislation," Bush said.

Nim Harris, president of Pickett Hosiery Mills Inc. in Burlington, N.C., said textile industry support for CAFTA is limited mainly to yarn and fabric makers, who view Central America as an expanding market for their goods, and big manufacturers interested in opening plants there.

"Basically, what it’s going to do is outsource more jobs to the Latin countries," said Harris, who has reduced employment at his sock factory to 90 workers, from 150 in the fall, as he lost business to lower-cost Chinese, Mexican and Honduran factories. "We’ve already absorbed a tremendous hit."

Times staff writer Joel Havemann in Washington contributed to this report.