WASHINGTON -- The House headed toward a showdown Wednesday on the Central American Free Trade Agreement after President Bush told wavering Republicans that passing it was critical to national security.
Even after months of intense lobbying by the president and administration trade officials, it was not clear if supporters had the needed votes.
"It's a close vote," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The agreement eventually would eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers between the United States and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. The trade deal was signed a year ago and approved by the Senate last month.
Opponents, mostly Democrats, blame free trade agreements for the overseas flight of American jobs and say labor rights provisions in the accord would perpetuate the exploitation of Central American workers.
Those fighting for passage say the agreement would open up markets for U.S. manufacturers while making Central America's fragile democracies more economically and politically stable.
"We must not neglect the anti-democracy, anti-American forces that are at work in Latin America," Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said, warning of the consequences of rejecting closer ties with the region.
CAFTA is "a rush to the bottom that puts profits above people," countered Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., as three hours of scheduled debate on the agreement began.
U.S. exports to the region are modest -- currently about $15 billion a year. But the administration says it would be a mistake to turn away from a region just emerging from political turmoil.
"This is a small bill economically, but it is a big bill in terms of its impact," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
"As our manufacturing base erodes, as our industrial base erodes, we have a president who is contributing to the further erosion of that base," Pelosi said.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney met with House Republicans for more than an hour Wednesday to stress that a prosperous Central America was important to U.S. national security.
All except perhaps a dozen Democrats were expected to vote against the agreement. That was why the president and GOP leaders have concentrated on keeping Republican defections to a minimum.
Bush reminded Republicans that while some might oppose CAFTA for parochial interests, "we are here not only to represent our districts but to represent the nation," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said after the meeting.
The president also mentioned other bills, including energy and highway legislation, on the congressional agenda before lawmakers' summer break, McClellan said.
To allay lawmakers' concerns about the U.S. sugar and textile industries, the administration has won over several Republicans by pledging protection from Central American imports.
Some textile groups now support the pact because it could help Central American clothing manufacturers, which buy large quantities of U.S. fabric and material, compete against Chinese goods, which have almost no U.S. content.
The House on Wednesday also passed legislation strengthening the monitoring of China's trade policies, a bill that GOP leaders brought to the floor to satisfy several lawmakers who were undecided on CAFTA because they said the United States wasn't tough enough in enforcing trade laws.
Bush has invested considerable time and effort to winning approval of CAFTA. For example, he invited the leaders of all six nations to a White House meeting and has spoken to Hispanic and business groups and with dozens of lawmakers.
On the Net:
U.S. Trade Representative: http://www.ustr.gov