After some of the most heated Congressional debate ever on a trade issue, the House of Representatives has narrowly approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement - 217 to 215 - giving President Bush a major victory. There were sharp exchanges between Democrats and Republicans over the legislation which aims to eliminate trade barriers between the United States, and six Latin American countries.
In the final hours, President Bush made an unusual visit to Capitol Hill trying to persuade still undecided members of his Republican Party to vote for CAFTA.
That is a measure of how important the agreement is to the president and members of his Republican Party, who call the accord critical to the U.S. economy and to stabilizing fragile democracies.
Eighty percent of goods from Central America already enter the United States duty free. CAFTA would eliminate or gradually phase out remaining tariffs with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua and includes a separate pact for the Dominican Republic.
CAFTA nations import about $15 billion in American goods. The Bush administration says the agreement will increase U.S. agricultural and manufactured exports to the region by at least $2 billion
Debate pitted the most fanatic of free-trade advocates against lawmakers who see CAFTA as a giveaway to multinational corporations, and a disappointment in the area of labor standards.
Congressman Bill Thomas, Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, accused Democrats of arrogance.
"As you make the arguments that you make so shamefully, so disrespectfully and so arrogantly about the governments, freely elected [and] supported by their people, just remember they want a job too," he said. "They love their children. They are respectful of you. Be respectful of them."
That brought this response from Democrat Charles Rangel.
"Arrogance? How can we have a bill say that we're helping these people to make certain that they stave off Communism and that they become indeed a Democratic country and, at the same time, exclude them from participating?" he said. "Yes they want CAFTA; yes the Dominicans want to have a Dominican free-trade agreement; but they want to be a part of it and they want their people protected."
The Bush administration made significant progress in the final hours leading to House debate, persuading Republicans from key textile-producing states who had been wary about negative effects of CAFTA.
After Mr. Bush's visit to Congress, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay accused Democrats of politicizing the debate over a crucial trade agreement:
"The president is looking out for the national interest. And it is in the national interest that CAFTA passes," he said. "It is good for our national security, in supporting these fledgling democracies at our back door. It is good in our effort against illegal immigration. It is good for our economy."
Opposition Democrats say CAFTA contains weaker standards and enforcement provisions on worker's rights and was negotiated by the governments, over the objections of indigenous labor, human rights and other groups.
Republicans contend the agreement contains provisions aimed at ensuring adherence to and strengthening of domestic labor laws.
Congressman David Dreier accused Democrats of twisting the facts. "The Democratically-elected parliaments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras all have had votes on this issue," he said. "It was 49 to 30 in the democratically-elected parliament of El Salvador, 126 to 12 in the democratically-elected parliament of Guatemala, and 100 of 128 legislators in Honduras were supportive of CAFTA."
China's growing influence in Western Hemisphere trade was a key part of the debate. Supporters insist CAFTA will help slow growing Chinese economic influence in the hemisphere. Opponents maintain it will lead to more job losses and worsen the U.S. trade deficit.
Earlier, the House approved a Republican-backed bill aimed at stepping up pressure on Beijing over its trade practices - a move designed in part by Republicans to ease the way for a successful vote on CAFTA.
The U.S. Senate approved CAFTA at the end of June, voting 54 to 45 in favor of the accord.