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Opposition to CAFTA will make vote difficult

De: Stephanie Weinberg [mailto:[email protected]]
Enviado el: viernes 1 de abril de 2005 8:52
Para: [email protected]

Inside US Trade


Date: April 1, 2005

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) said this week that opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) from Senate Agriculture Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) has made CAFTA passage “very, very difficult,” and added in a March 29 press conference that another difficulty is stronger-than-usual opposition from the sugar lobby and organized labor.

Chambliss’ comments against CAFTA last week also prompted Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to say in a March 28 press conference that he would “soon” visit with Chambliss to explain to him how much his state would benefit from CAFTA.

Johanns said he can point to specific commodity groups where U.S. producers would gain more access under CAFTA than they now have.

Johanns added that he looked at Chambliss’ announcement as an “opportunity to get information out to him and to the other members in the Senate and the House” on the benefits of CAFTA. He repeated the long-standing arguments that the CAFTA serves to give the U.S. equal status with CAFTA producers, who now have duty-free access for most of their products under unilateral trade preference programs. The U.S. exported $1.8 billion to CAFTA nations in 2004, and that could well double when the CAFTA is passed and the markets are open on a fair and equitable basis, Johanns said.

Johanns did not comment further on the Chambliss announcement, but a Central American official said the Bush Administration is “furious” about his stated opposition.

Observers have said that if the administration cannot reach an accommodation with Chambliss, it would give political cover to a whole group of Southern Republicans not to vote for CAFTA. Chambliss announced last week that he would oppose CAFTA as it now stands.

Pro-CAFTA lobbyists this week said the impact of the Chambliss announcement depends on whether he is seeking changes to the CAFTA agreement or wants to reach a deal on an unrelated issue. If his demands are not related to CAFTA, they may be easier to accommodate, one business lobbyist said. But they professed to be uncertain still on exactly what Chambliss is seeking from the administration, and said that the announcement took the administration by surprise.

Industry sources have speculated that Chambliss’ stated opposition could be due to the CAFTA sugar provisions or to an unrelated problem he has with the way USDA sets the price of peanuts it sells out of storage (Inside U.S. Trade, March 25, p. 6).

Preliminary vote counts on CAFTA say supporters are up to 40 Republican votes short in the House, but others say the shortfall is only 35 to 25 votes. Supporters face a particular dilemma with respect to House Democrats, because they have not found a member to step into the role of lobbying other members to support the deal and conduct an informal whip operation, sources said. That role was previously filled by Rep. Cal Dooley (D-CA) who retired from the House in the last Congress.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) has offered to fill that role, but business is doubtful he can be effective given his freshman status, one business lobbyist said. He said that Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY), who took an active role on the Australia FTA, may be persuaded to work for CAFTA passage among Democrats.

A staff member of the Business Roundtable lobbying for CAFTA this week tried to downplay the opposition CAFTA faces by insisting that lobbyists get “enormously positive” feed back from members during their visits.

CAFTA supporters also acknowledge that there is no White House commitment to a specific date for CAFTA passage but insist that the White House supports passage. One lobbyist said a trade official told him that the White House does not want to decide on when to pass CAFTA unless it has concluded that its efforts to change Social Security will not move forward in Congress.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez this week would only say that the Bush Administration would “pay considerable attention” to CAFTA this year. He has been tasked along with Johanns to promote passage of the agreement along with USTR.

An additional factor complicating the consideration of the CAFTA in the Senate is the fight over changing Senate rules that will further curtail the ability of the minority party to influence legislative business, one CAFTA supporter said. If Republicans curtail the right to filibuster, the atmosphere is bound to be more partisan and legislative business, including the CAFTA, is likely to suffer, he said.

According to Grassley, Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) will be spokesmen for agriculture in the debate over CAFTA.

Separately, two Republicans last week criticized USTR’s strategy of pressuring Central American countries to pass the CAFTA in their legislatures. Sources have said USTR has done so because it strengthens its argument to members of Congress that the U.S. cannot let down leaders that have taken a political risk.

Reps. Walter Jones (R-NC) and Virgil Goode (R-VA) said that efforts by CAFTA supporters to create the impression that the United States is likely to ratify the agreement in the coming session are a “concentrated effort” to spread disinformation. “There is strong bi-partisan opposition to the CAFTA in the United States House of Representatives and it is our opinion that, if presented to Congress for a vote today, the agreement would fail,” they said in a March 25 statement. Both have districts hard hit by job losses in the textile industry, a textile industry source said.

They said Central American leaders should not be swayed to ratify CAFTA by arguments that the approval of the agreement by Congress is certain. “The reality of the situation in Washington is that any attempt to present CAFTA to Congress for a vote at this time faces substantial hurdles and in our opinion will not result in passage of the agreement,” they said.

To get Costa Rica and Dominican Republic to move on ratification, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Chris Padilla told Costa Rican reporters earlier this month that governments not ratifying the CAFTA could endanger their benefits under unilateral programs such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative. “If a country chooses not to ratify CAFTA and open its markets to U.S. goods and services, it should not automatically assume that Congress will continue to provide it preferential, one-way access to the U.S. market,” according to a USTR spokesperson. “One-way preference programs expire, and are not automatically renewed and can be changed at any time by Congress.”