The Bush administration has submitted the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement to Congress amid reports it was offering new concessions to sugar producers to try to round up more support for it.
While a close vote was being predicted in both houses, observers said they expected DR-CAFTA to prevail, in part, because of the "full-court" pressure being applied by the administration to secure votes from wary Republicans.
In a White House meeting leading up to the submission, President Bush urged Congress to pass the agreement "because America has an interest in strengthening democracy and advancing prosperity in our hemisphere." Cabinet members and officials from previous Democratic and Republican administrations attended the meeting.
Supporters have said the pact would allow U.S. exporters the same access to markets in the five Central American countries – Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua and in the Dominican Republic –as exporters in those countries have to the U.S. market under earlier agreements.
The president said consumers in those countries would also have access to U.S. goods at lower prices. "That brings us a step closer to our goal of an Americas where the opportunities in San Jose, Costa Rica, are as real as they are in San Jose, Calif."
Speaking on the security theme administration officials have been using more and more with DR-CAFTA, U.S. Trade Representative Bob Portman told reporters the agreement will bring added stability and prosperity to the region.
"We cannot let these countries down in Central America – these fragile democracies that are making the right moves, doing the right things and creating free markets and promoting democracy," he said.
But leaders in the DR-CAFTA countries may not get as much of an agreement as they expect because of administration promises to U.S. sugar producers and refiners. Reports said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has promised to use his authority to prevent sugar from the countries from entering the United States.
"I’ve talked about an idea that literally says, ‘Look, in the powers I have today, which I will commit to using, we could hold sugar harmless,’" Johanns was quoted as saying in a briefing June 23. "I can guarantee that sugar is not going to be impacted by the CAFTA agreement during the life of the farm bill."
Some observers said the promise may not be enough to sway members from sugar-producing states. "I'm not sure we've been in direct negotiations," said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., who threatened to vote against the agreement in a mock vote conducted by the Senate Finance Committee on the measure.
The Finance Committee "passed" the agreement in a nonbinding 11-9 vote on June 14, while the House Ways and Means Committee’s straw vote produced 25 votes for and 16 votes against a day later. Observers said both votes were closer than might normally be expected.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss said that while some lawmakers responded positively to the administration promises, "We’re still not quite where we need to be."
Sugarcane producer leaders said they continue to view DR-CAFTA as a "fight for our very survival." John Gay, a sugarcane farmer from Louisiana, added, "We cannot afford to lose."
Secretary Johanns has authority to buy excess sugar from CAFTA countries to use for things other than food, such as sugar-based ethanol fuel. He can also give away other U.S. crops to CAFTA countries that agree not to ship sugar to the United States.
Under Trade Promotion Authority procedures, the House Ways and Means Committee has 45 legislative days to act on the legislation, and the House has an additional 15 days to vote on it without amendment. The Senate Finance Committee then has an additional 15 days to act on the legislation after which the Senate has 15 days to vote on it.