WASHINGTON The House last night voted 217-215 to approve the Central America Free Trade Agreement after an intensive effort by President Bush and House Republican leaders to round up enough votes for the controversial trade pact.
Approval of the treaty was in doubt until the last minutes of the late-night vote, and House GOP leaders indicated they were prepared to lengthen the time available for voting normally 15 minutes until CAFTA could be passed.
The vote was kept open for more than an hour as both sides made a last-ditch effort to twist arms and trade favors as a way of gathering more votes from undecided lawmakers. For much of the vote, CAFTA supporters could gather only 214 votes; there were nine hold-outs eight Republicans and one Democrat.
Democrats had hoped to hand President Bush a major defeat, arguing that CAFTA would cost American jobs. Republicans pushed CAFTA as an important step in the nation s response to economic globalization.
Underscoring the White House s aggressive push for CAFTA, President Bush journeyed to Capitol Hill yesterday morning for a closed-door meeting with House Republicans on the pact, which eventually would eliminate trade barriers between the United States and six Central American nations: Costa Rice, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
During the rare, one hour-plus meeting, Mr. Bush sought to convince wavering GOP lawmakers to vote for the agreement as a way of ensuring national security interests in Central America. The President argued that CAFTA will help the U.S. economy expand in Central America while helping nurture the new democracies there and lessening the flow of illegal immigration.
An overwhelming majority of House Democrats said CAFTA fails to provide important labor and environmental standards in Central American countries.
Democrats also contended that it could hurt U.S. workers, especially those in the textile and sugar industries, pointing to what they believe are job losses due to the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed 10 years ago.
The Senate approved CAFTA last month, but the House vote was necessary to put the pact into force in the United States. The CAFTA agreement, which was signed in May, 2004, is designed to eliminate tariffs on U.S. goods sold in the affected Central American nations, just as there are no tariffs on 80 percent of Central American products sold in the United States.
Currently, the U.S. exports $15 billion of goods to Central America.
The often rancorous House debate on the CAFTA bill began in the evening and stretched into the wee hours of this morning, capping a day of back-door maneuvering for votes amid public assurances by House GOP leaders that the measure would eventually win House approval.
Democrats complained mightily that the two hours of debate earmarked for the legislation was far too little for such an important measure.
This report includes information from the Associated Press.
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