The proposed free trade agreement for Central American nations and the Dominican Republic (CAFTA) has made more progress in Congress, winning approval in test votes by two key committees. However, it still faces opposition from critics who assert it will lead to more job losses in the United States and maintain it does not contain strong enough labor protections.
President Bush has identified congressional approval of CAFTA as a top priority and the debate pits business and labor groups supporting and opposing the agreement against each other as they try to win support in Congress for their position.
Lawmakers are in the middle of an all-out battle on the most important Bush administration trade agenda item.
Recently, the head of the U.S. chamber of commerce Tom Donohue, had this warning for members of Congress:
"We are going to key vote this issue and we're going to count it twice, and if you're going to vote against it, it is going to cost you," Mr. Donohue says. "I am not in any way threatening. We just want everyone to understand that this is something that is important for every member of our community.
CAFTA has now passed two crucial hurdles viewed as important tests before the Bush administration sends Congress a final version of an implementing bill covered under so-called fast track procedures for rapid approval of trade agreements.
Draft legislation was approved in what is called a mock (test) hearing Tuesday in the Senate Finance Committee, and the House Ways and Means Committee followed on Wednesday.
In the House committee, CAFTA proponents backed President Bush's position that the agreement will be good for the U.S. economy, and help strengthen new democracies in Central America.
Florida Republican Clay Shaw says, "a number of us remember the 1980's when military coups and dictatorships ruled the day in a number of these countries. DR-CAFTA nations (the Dominican Republic and Central American nations) have turned away from this horrific past and embraced the fruit of freedom and democratic process."
But Democrats, such as Maryland's Benjamin Cardin, maintain labor provisions in CAFTA are still too weak.
"We are weakening our provisions on moving toward international labor standards by the enactment of this CAFTA, and that is wrong," Mr. Cardin says.
Democrats failed in an attempt to prevent the agreement from taking effect, after approval by Congress, until provisions regarding labor standards are re-negotiated failed.
President Bush met Wednesday with Senate Democrats and Republicans as he continues to try to solidify support for CAFTA.
The administration has also told lawmakers it will work to ensure that labor laws in CAFTA countries - (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic - are enforced.
A group of the most vociferous congressional critics of CAFTA held a news conference outside the U.S. capitol, along with Central American legislators opposing the agreement.
Salvador Arias, a member of El Salvador's legislative assembly, says "[With CAFTA] we are going to lose the small [amount of] democracy we have if CAFTA is approved because poverty will be greater, and the social and political de-stabilization in Central America will be worse than it is now.
CAFTA proposes to eliminate most tariffs on more than $30 billion in goods flowing between the United States and member countries.
Though the pact has significant support from the National Association of Manufacturers, and a wide range of other organizations, opponents say it will hurt U.S. agriculture, including U.S. sugar producers, which has been a subject of intense debate on Capitol Hill.