Friends, Foes Made Over Trade Deal

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Times Staff Writer

No sooner had Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) cast his vote in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement than anti-CAFTA activists started plotting their revenge.

Labor unions began calling members in Cuellar’s southwest Texas district and planning a protest outside his San Antonio office. Opponents of the pact finalized plans to launch a door-to-door, bilingual canvassing effort sometime around Labor Day. “Our intent is to expose the myths he expounds that trade is good for Latinos in his district,” said Debbie Russell, who is directing the campaign for the Texas Fair Trade Coalition.

Although President Bush signed CAFTA into law Tuesday, ending a long battle for ratification, recriminations might only be beginning for some lawmakers who voted for the trade pact.


Cuellar is one of about two dozen House members targeted by trade critics, labor unions and political activists for helping Bush secure his razor-thin CAFTA victory. The targeted lawmakers include Democrats who bucked party leaders by voting for the agreement and Republicans who supported it despite heavy opposition from labor, textile or sugar interests in their districts.

Among them is Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), who was distressed to learn he was the first House member singled out on a website that promised to document how pro-CAFTA votes like his had hurt constituents. “I didn’t betray anyone,” Meeks protested in a phone interview.

Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) -- who changed his vote from no to yes after intense last-minute lobbying -- has issued a flurry of announcements to counter efforts by opponents to stir up trouble in his district.

Cuellar’s vote for CAFTA, along with his support for other legislation backed by Bush, has made him the United Steelworkers of America’s top target for 2006.

“It’s a disgrace for him to vote that way, as many poor, working-class people as live in that district,” Chuck Rocha, the union’s national political director, said as he was heading to San Antonio to organize anti-Cuellar activities.

Cuellar was making the rounds of communities in his district to discuss the trade pact and other issues. He said he would weather the storm.


“If those groups want to call attention to my CAFTA vote, I say go ahead,” Cuellar said. “What they’re going to find out is the more people know about my vote, the more votes I’m going to get.”

The Senate approved CAFTA by a comfortable margin in late June, but the trade deal barely survived a showdown in the House on July 28. With the result in doubt, Republican leaders held the vote open for more than an hour instead of the usual allotted 15 minutes. Several members withheld their yes votes until the last minute, and three switched sides after initially voting no.

In the end, the trade pact passed 217 to 215.

CAFTA opponents and political activists said last week that they still were discussing the extent of reprisals. But their initial targets included many of the “CAFTA 15” -- Democrats who voted for the trade pact -- and as many as a dozen Republicans who had been expected to vote against it but switched sides.

“It’s going to be very painful for the members who committed to voting against CAFTA but switched,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, an advocacy group that opposed CAFTA. “I think we’re going to see equalopportunity, bipartisan accountability and retribution.”

Opponents said they planned to publicize the defections, withhold future campaign contributions and work to defeat vulnerable incumbents in next year’s elections. On Capitol Hill, there was talk among lawmakers of retribution against members who abandoned their parties, including the possible loss of key committee assignments.

The president’s allies rushed to the defense of House members who might have endangered their careers by backing CAFTA. The National Assn. of Manufacturers said it was encouraging its members to help the “CAFTA 15” Democrats as well as Republicans whose yes votes were unpopular in their districts.


One of Bush’s top legislative priorities for 2005, CAFTA will lower trade barriers between the United States and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Its effect on the U.S. economy is expected to be modest. But the trade accord became a focal point of public and congressional dissatisfaction about the effects of globalization on jobs and living standards of Americans.

“Voters equate CAFTA with NAFTA, and that is a trade policy that cost many of these districts tens of thousands of jobs,” said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

After the House vote, committee activists contacted media outlets in the districts of more than 20 potentially vulnerable Republican lawmakers, Feinberg said.

Mike Mathis, government affairs director for the Teamsters Union, said leaders of several big unions were still discussing what to do about House members who had been backed by labor but voted for the trade pact. “I know that in the short term, there certainly won’t be any money going out from the Teamsters to the people who voted wrong on this,” Mathis said.

Cuellar became a focal point of wrath after the pact’s ratification partly because he was the first House Democrat to break with his party and declare support for the trade agreement.


A former Texas secretary of State, he had previously angered some Democrats by voting for bills backed by Bush to revamp bankruptcy law and limit class-action lawsuits. “We have somebody there who we’re not even sure is a real Democrat,” said Rocha of the steelworkers union. “We’ve got to get rid of this guy while he’s still a freshman, while we can.”

Russell, the Texas Fair Trade Coalition organizer, said she planned to hire bilingual canvassers to go door-to-door in Cuellar’s district, in San Antonio and Laredo.

Cuellar said his opponents were mischaracterizing CAFTA’s potential impact on his district, which includes the Port of Laredo on the Rio Grande. “It creates jobs in my district, and I’m going to support any legislation that does that,” he said.

The Internet site targeting CAFTA supporters was launched last week by Wallach’s group, Global Trade Watch, which began posting critiques of lawmakers who voted for the agreement after either promising or suggesting strongly that they would oppose it.

The first two members to make the list were Meeks and Hayes.

Meeks said he had voted for the pact because he was convinced it would not only create jobs in his district, which includes Kennedy International Airport, but also would help lift the citizens of Central America out of poverty.

Hayes, the North Carolina Republican, initially voted against CAFTA when the roll was called, but he switched sides. He said he did so after receiving calls on the House floor from textile makers who favored ratification and securing promises from administration officials to help his district.


In recent days, his office has issued a series of announcements portraying Hayes as a leader in efforts to crack down on alleged trading abuses and currency manipulation by China, and suggesting he was promised a role in formulating future trade policy in return for his vote.

After administration officials announced plans last week to seek a broad agreement with China on textile imports, Hayes thanked them for honoring their pledge “with such quick follow-up.”