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Key Bush Trade Priority Nears Vote in Congress

President Bush's major trade priority is nearing a crucial vote in Congress. The Central American and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will be considered by the House of Representatives, after being approved earlier by the U.S. Senate.

This week's vote in the House will come after months of some of the most intense lobbying ever seen in the U.S. Congress on a trade issue.

CAFTA seeks to eliminate tariffs on goods flowing between the United States and five Central American countries - Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua - and includes a separate pact with the Dominican Republic.

Opposing sides have argued about the benefits or drawbacks of the accord for workers in the United States, as well those in the Latin American countries. China's growing influence in western hemisphere trade has also been part of the debate.

Leading up to the expected House vote, President Bush and his Republican supporters have been doing everything they can to improve CAFTA's chances.

The president has played the role of chief promoter, portraying CAFTA as central to economic growth in the countries concerned, and the stability of their democracies. "I understand the importance of removing trade barriers that make it difficult for our businesses and farmers to compete. This bill that the House of Representatives will be voting on is pro-jobs, pro-growth, and pro-Democracy," he said.

Since Senate approval of the agreement by a vote of 54 to 45 at the end of June, CAFTA has faced strong opposition from lawmakers in the House who say it could lead to further loss of American jobs.

With U.S. Trade Representative and former Congressman Rob Portman as its point man, the Bush administration has made progress picking up votes.

Mr. Portman appeared at a Capitol Hill news conference Monday to formally announce changes negotiated with Central American governments to address concerns of lawmakers in sugar-producing, and textile manufacturing states.

Three previously undecided House Republicans now support CAFTA, among them Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus. "A solution to the issues that we thought were critical to the textile industry in our districts has been resolved. And I will support the trade agreement," he said.

Mr. Portman predicts the agreements, aimed at protecting U.S. textile producers, improve chances for CAFTA in the House. "We are getting to the point where we will have the votes when this agreement comes up, I believe," he said.

Democrats have kept up a stream of criticism. Congressman Peter DeFazio spoke on the floor of the House, accusing Republicans of selling false hopes about the agreement. "American workers shouldn't be asked to compete with workers who earn less than a dollar an hour in Central America, but that is what will happen if this is passed," he said.

But as they make more progress in winning support from previously undecided lawmakers, Republicans can also point to support from key Hispanic-American groups.

"As Hispanics, as business people, we want to see more opportunities created by Hispanics both here in the U.S. and in Latin America. CAFTA-DR is the perfect vehicle to have this happen," said Michael Barrera is president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

It still remains to be seen if President Bush, working with Republican leaders in the House, can erase the remaining concerns of key lawmakers in order to swing the vote in favor of the trade agreement.

The House vote on the Central American-Dominican Republic accord is expected to be the narrowest in years, much tighter than the chamber's 234 to 200 vote in 1993 approving the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).