Supporters of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have begun a new drive to assure congressional approval of the accord the Bush administration says will help workers in the region and in the United States. A coalition of business and manufacturing groups announced the new effort Wednesday, as opponents continue to voice their objections to the agreement.

With the Republican leadership in Congress hoping for June consideration of CAFTA, lawmakers are urging business and Hispanic organizations supporting it to intensify their lobbying campaign.

The Business Coalition for U.S.-Central American Free Trade, comprising some 500 companies and associations used a Wednesday news conference to reinforce several of its key messages:  that CAFTA will be good for U.S. workers, and will help support emerging democracies in Central America.

Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, promises what he calls a "relentless" public relations campaign to drive home those and other points.

"Mark my words, we're going to win this vote, because the issues are so fundamental to this country,? he said.  ? We're going to get past the ?China? arguments, we're going to get past the emotion, we're going to look every member of the House and Senate in the eye and ask him, are they going to let our progress slide behind, are they going to close markets to American manufacturers, I don't think so."

Among many criticisms by congressional and trade union opponents of CAFTA is that it will lead to further job losses in the United States and permit exploitation of workers in Central America. 

Among those opposing CAFTA is the United Steel Workers Union and its president Leo Gerard who appeared earlier this month at an anti-CAFTA rally.

"What CAFTA does is it entrenches the rights of multi-national corporations,? he said.  ?CAFTA is not a trade deal.  CAFTA is not even an investment deal.  CAFTA is a multinational exploitation deal and that is one of the many reasons it has to be defeated."

However, John Engler, President of the National Association of Manufacturers, says CAFTA will help preserve jobs and prevent U.S. exports and the work supporting them from going to Asia.

"There is $4 billion of existing U.S. exports that could otherwise be diverted to Asia," Mr. Engler noted.

Clay Shaw, a Florida Republican, takes up that question, saying CAFTA will help balance the growing influence China has on trade in the Western hemisphere.

"We cannot back away from free trade in our own hemisphere, that would be a terrible, terrible mistake, because the rest of the world is going to free trade in our back yard and we have no way of stopping them except through fair and balanced competition and that is what this is about," he added.

Support for CAFTA crosses party lines, with a number of free trade House Democrats taking the side of the Bush administration in pushing for implementation.

Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, sees the debate in stark terms, saying CAFTA is Latin America's last chance to avoid economic isolation.

"This is Central America's last hope.  It is.  And I'm sorry that so many of my friends particularly in the Democratic party are so resistant to the threat of change, they are willing to take the chance, and we think it is an inevitability, that Central America is going to end up in the backwaters of the global economy.  We should not, [and] cannot let that happen," he stated.

However, CAFTA faces strong opposition in Congress, much of it from House Democrats who compare it to the much larger North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of the 1990s, and say it will result in thousands of additional jobs leaving the United States.

Congressman Mike Michaud is a Maine Democrat.

"These trade policies have left our workers with nothing but pink slips, and CAFTA promises to do the same.  Well, I am sick and tired of it.  I know you're sick and tired of it.  Workers all around the United States are sick and tired of it.  It's time for it to stop and the time is now," he retorted.

When lawmakers return from a Memorial Day recess, CAFTA faces crucial consideration in House and Senate committees. 

In advance of these, the Bush administration is working hard to pick up support from key House Democrats, sending U.S. trade representative and former Congressman Rob Portman to Capitol Hill this week to help in that effort.

The presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic recently visited Congress, and toured U.S. cities as part of efforts to win the public relations battle linked to any congressional approval of CAFTA.

President Bush considers CAFTA a crucial part of his administration's free trade agenda, saying it will help promote democracy, human rights and economic freedom in a region of great importance to the United States.