House Approves Central American Trade Deal
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Just after midnight last night, the House of Representatives passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Republicans prevailed, just barely, 217-to-215. President Bush and Vice President Cheney trekked to Capitol Hill yesterday to give House Republicans the hard sell on CAFTA. Still, many Republicans broke ranks to join the opposition. Here's NPR's Andrea Seabrook.
ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:
They came out fighting. The top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee Bill Thomas of California and the top Democrat Charlie Rangel of New York came out of their corners with bitter words. Thomas, representing Republican leaders, said the argument that CAFTA could weaken labor laws and could push more children to work is arrogant.
Representative BILL THOMAS (Republican, California): The argument that somehow these people down there don't love their children any more than we do is in fact shameful. It's disrespectful and it's arrogant.
SEABROOK: Rangel, representing Democratic leaders, had a sarcastic retort.
Representative CHARLIE RANGEL (Democrat, New York): This attack against arrogance has moved my heart. And this conversation with the immigrants and the newcomers to find out what should be in the trade bill, it certainly would have worked out a heck of a lot better if he had talked with some of the Democrats in the House.
SEABROOK: But immediately following these sour opening notes, each side called a succession of speakers from the other's party, members of Congress who crossed the aisle to argue for or against CAFTA. The Central American Free Trade Agreement would tear down remaining trade barriers between the US, the Dominican Republic and five Central American countries. Under an existing agreement, about 80 percent of Central American goods imported to the US are already tariff-free. The main trade effect of CAFTA would be to open Central American markets to US-made goods and services. That's why many Republicans and some Democrats, like Henry Cuellar of Texas, said it's a good deal.
Representative HENRY CUELLAR (Democrat, Texas): CAFTA will also create a--tremendous job opportunities for the 13,000 American small businesses that are currently already exporting to those Central American countries. The economic opportunities created will bring new jobs and the possibility of a middle-class life to millions of Central Americans who are currently living in poverty.
SEABROOK: Cuellar and other CAFTA supporters argued that by improving the economies of these nations and creating jobs, fewer Central Americans will come north to the US to find ways to feed their families. But at what price to the United States economy? asked opponents of the trade pact. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have relocated overseas in recent years. Many Democrats and some Republicans, like Howard Coble of North Carolina, worry CAFTA will cut that wound deeper.
Representative HOWARD COBLE (Republican, North Carolina): I told President Bush that my late mom was a textile worker. She sewed pockets in overalls and when textile workers, specifically female workers, plead with me to vote against CAFTA, I said to the president, `It's my mama talking to me.'
SEABROOK: President Bush and Republicans like Pete Hoekstra of Michigan also argued that Congress should match the loyalty Central American countries have shown the US.
Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): In the war on terror, they have been there with us. Four of these countries have sent troops to Iraq. All six of these countries are part of the coalition to defeat terrorism.
SEABROOK: And the president also said creating stability in Central American nations through free trade would enhance national security in the US. But Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi countered that.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): Trade alone, devoid of a basic living and working standards, has not and will not promote security nor will it lift developing nations out of poverty. Our national security will not be improved by exploiting workers in Central America.
SEABROOK: At the end of the normal vote time of 15 minutes, it appeared the Democrats and about two dozen Republicans had killed CAFTA. But as Republican leaders held the vote open, their number crept up until reaching the critical majority just after midnight. When it did, the presiding officer jumped to his feet to gavel the vote closed before any other members could switch their votes. As CAFTA already won approval in the Senate last month, it now needs only the president's signature.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.