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Bush Working to Stitch Together Political Support for Trade Deal

Times Staff Writers

With a congressional showdown looming on a high-profile trade pact with Central American nations, Bush administration officials scrambled Monday to negotiate side deals that might get them the two dozen or so additional votes needed to ensure passage.

By day’s end, they appeared to have nailed down at least five.

“I told them this is what they needed to do to get my vote,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), who joined with four House colleagues to seek concessions for home-state textile plants. “The bottom line is they have done everything I asked for.”

Gingrey said the five Southern lawmakers were “95%" certain to support the Central American Free Trade Agreement and were waiting for final signatures on agreements to protect U.S. makers of denim cloth and trouser pockets.

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Vote counters on both sides of the issue said it remained unclear whether President Bush would prevail when CAFTA came up for a vote in the House, expected Wednesday or Thursday. The Senate has approved the trade deal.

CAFTA would eliminate most trade barriers between the United States and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Although its economic effect would be far smaller than the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, CAFTA has become a litmus test of Bush’s ability to steer trade deals through Congress amid public anxiety about China’s economic ascendancy, U.S. job losses and other effects of globalization. Congress has not rejected a major trade deal in more than 40 years.

“It appears the White House is in a panic mode,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who represents a textile district and opposes CAFTA. “The president understands it will impact his effectiveness if he is unable to get it through.... If it doesn’t pass the House, I think it’s going to be a signal that he is a lame-duck president.”

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Despite weeks of intensive lobbying, the administration remained 20 to 30 votes short of the number needed for House passage, said vote counters, who included members of Congress, congressional and administration aides, and representatives of advocacy groups.

The agreement with Gingrey’s group, when completed, apparently will narrow the gap by five. Other members of the group are Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), Rep. J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.).

Vote counters said CAFTA was opposed by all but a few House Democrats, many of whom have cited concerns about labor and environmental standards in the CAFTA countries. Twenty-five to 30 Republicans were expected to vote against it, in most cases because of its effect on textile makers and sugar growers.

In an effort to round up additional votes, the administration and its allies let it be known that they were willing to entertain requests for concessions on CAFTA’s provisions, as well as for special favors in other areas, such as road and bridge projects. Although no such deals have been disclosed, several officials said they were under discussion.

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The president appointed himself negotiator in chief, inviting dozens of lawmakers to private meetings at the White House. Among business groups lobbying for the deal are those in Hollywood and in Silicon Valley.

The movie studios’ trade group, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, has dispatched lobbyists to Capitol Hill, and studio chiefs are contacting lawmakers in a push for approval of the deal.

Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Chris Padilla said Hollywood correctly perceived CAFTA as a “cutting-edge template” for other trade agreements that would help combat piracy around the world.

Robert A. Iger, president and incoming chief executive of Walt Disney Co., put in a pitch for CAFTA during a recent lunch with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman who as head of the motion picture trade group is Hollywood’s chief lobbyist in Washington, has called or visited a number of House Democrats.

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The administration sealed its deal with Gingrey’s group after negotiations that began with a discussion between Bush and about 10 undecided House members in the Yellow Room of the White House on June 28.

Over cookies and soft drinks, Gingrey explained to the president why textile companies were concerned about trade provisions that would allow CAFTA countries to begin importing large quantities of material from China, instead of the United States, to make denim jeans and trouser pockets and linings.

“I spoke first, then the other members kind of picked up the chorus,” Gingrey said. “Some of them spoke at length, to the point I was amazed the president was so patient. He’s a good listener.”

As a result of the discussions, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman negotiated written agreements with the trade and foreign ministers of the CAFTA countries to address the textile concerns. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) wrote a letter promising to push any necessary legislation.

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In a similar deal, House leaders agreed to schedule a vote this week on a bill that would authorize the government to impose retaliatory tariffs on any Chinese exports found to be government-subsidized. The deal had secured five or six CAFTA votes from a group headed by Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), head of the Congressional Steel Caucus.

Some House members representing textile districts were holding out for more concessions. Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.) said he told Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Portman in an Oval Office meeting last week that he would vote against CAFTA unless something was done to protect Alabama sock makers from a surge of low-cost imports.

“I told them there were concerns I had, and that what I would like them to do is basically come back with a counteroffer,” Aderholt said. “We’re not there yet, but I’ve told them I will continue a dialogue with them.”

CAFTA opponents conceded that the deal-making appeared to be narrowing the gap, but they expressed hope that the agreement would fall short of the 218 votes needed for ratification.

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“They’re scrambling to find votes wherever they can,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), a senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “But I still think there’s a real chance we’ll beat it.”

Levin said CAFTA’s shortcomings, and the administration’s unwillingness to address Democratic concerns about labor and environmental standards, had splintered the bipartisan coalition that had approved previous trade deals. A number of usually pro-trade Democrats who have supported other agreements said they opposed CAFTA, contending that it lacked protection for workers in Latin America.

“Unfortunately, the administration has only reached out to try to address some of these concerns in the eleventh hour, when they’re worried they don’t have the votes,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes several studios that support CAFTA. “I just don’t have enough confidence that the administration will enforce labor and environmental standards and intellectual property protections.”

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Times staff writer Joel Havemann contributed to this report.


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