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Portman trying to corral votes for Central American trade pact
Scripps Howard News Service


July 08, 2005

WASHINGTON - As President Bush's new trade wrangler in chief, Rob Portman is working hard to corral votes in Congress for a pact that the White House considers key to national security and immigration control.

Round after round of meetings into the night with lawmakers and lobbyists finally sent the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) through the Senate on a 54-45 vote at the start of Congress' weeklong July Fourth recess.

The Senate win "was a huge momentum builder" toward a House vote later this month, says Portman, a former member of the House Republican leadership from suburban Cincinnati. The U.S. trade representative calls the accord "a classic win-win situation" that expands "export opportunities for American farmers, workers and businesses" while helping raise the living standards of the six CAFTA nations.

Administration officials negotiated the pact more than a year ago with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic - all "young democracies in our hemisphere whose success is important for America's national security and for reducing illegal immigration," Bush says.

House members have some concerns about CAFTA even though the six countries pose little threat to U.S. economic superiority. Their collective economies are the size of that of Sacramento, Calif., producing $85 billion a year compared to America's $12 trillion output. Yet their 44 million citizens buy $16 billion worth of U.S. goods annually.

Key House Republicans from sugar and textile states fear that lower trade barriers will send more U.S. jobs abroad. And Democrats complain that labor and environmental provisions are weaker than existing safeguards with these same countries, and wonder whether CAFTA will lead to watered-down U.S. standards.

Unlike Portman predecessor Robert Zoellick, the State Department veteran and scholar who negotiated CAFTA, "Rob knows what it's like to go home for the weekend after casting a tough vote that spells peril for your constituents," says Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.

Assurances by Portman and others that the U.S. sugar industry won't suffer at least until current farm-bill provisions expire in 2007 were sufficient to sway most sugar-state senators. But Foley, whose Treasure Coast district is the nation's third-largest sugar producer, wants more than one more study: He wants administration support for a program to convert sugar to ethanol.

A divided textile-and-apparel industry has Alabama's House delegation in the CAFTA bull's-eye, too. Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt, whose district includes Fort Payne, Ala., the self-described "Sock Capital of the World," says constituents fret that their jobs will get exported to low-cost, low-wage CAFTA countries.

But clothing importers and yarn-and-textile groups say the accord will help the Americas compete with China in the brave new world of quota-free trade in fiber-and-fabric goods. Woods Eastland, chairman of the National Cotton Council in Memphis, Tenn., calls CAFTA "essential" to the future of U.S. cotton.

Portman's written assurance that the White House will back $40 million annually over the next three years to enforce labor standards in CAFTA countries convinced Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to cross organized labor and vote for the deal. Bingaman calls Portman's promise "an unprecedented commitment to monitor worker protections and to provide assistance to farmers that should prevent an influx of illegal immigration."

But that promise won't woo Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a leading critic of immigration policy. He wrote to Portman to complain that CAFTA could give Central Americans "a de facto right to work in the United States."

Nor will labor-standards promises win over Maryland Rep. Benjamin Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee. Cardin's successful partnership with Portman on trade, tax and pension bills over the years had fellow committee members comparing their fancy legislative footwork to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

To Cardin, "These six CAFTA countries are required to meet international labor standards today to get access to U.S. markets, but CAFTA rolls back those standards." He also wonders how Portman can commit $40 million a year to labor oversight when Congress controls the purse strings.

That Bush tapped Portman as trade negotiator is telling: During six terms in the House, the free-trader and one-time lawyer reached across the aisle on a range of issues. "He has shown he can bring together people of differing views to get things done," Bush said in nominating his longtime friend.

Portman, 49 and a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan law school, is a longtime Bush loyalist who campaigned for Bush and prepped him for the 2000 debates. Portman also was a White House lawyer and congressional liaison for the first President Bush before Portman returned to Ohio to run for Congress in 1992.

Portman was sworn in as trade ambassador April 29, the same day the Senate confirmed him. His wife Jane held the Bible as their three teenage children looked on, prompting the president to quip that having teens makes for "a skilled negotiator." Portman replied he hoped he'd be "half as good at negotiating access for U.S. products as I've become on allowances and curfews."

Now Portman must negotiate with former House colleagues leery of globalization in general and CAFTA in particular.

The pact is only the start: Larger wrangles await, with CAFTA's outcome influencing chances for the larger Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement and 148-nation World Trade Organization talks.

And then there's China.

The administration has already slapped import quotas on some Chinese textiles and is pressing Beijing to stop pegging its currency to the dollar amidst congressional threats of retaliation.

Portman promised a "top-to-bottom review" of China trade and vows a "more balanced" approach. But that may not satisfy lawmakers who complain that China's currency regime lets it sell its exports at cut-rate prices, undercutting American competitors and feeding the record U.S. trade deficit. China's $18.5 billion bid for the U.S. oil firm Unocal has only fueled congressional ire.

In Congress, Cardin says, Portman "understands what bipartisanship is all about. Had he been U.S. trade representative when CAFTA was negotiated, we'd have a better CAFTA that could command bipartisan support."

Now, Cardin says, "It's time to get CAFTA behind us and get on to China, the Americas agreement and global trade talks."


Contact Mary Deibel at deibelm(at)

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