'New Democrat' Bloc Opposes Trade Pact

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

Traditionally pro-business and pro-trade House Democrats have announced plans to vote against the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, a stance putting at risk support from the rapidly growing high-tech community, one of the few major industries that continue to give substantial backing to Democratic candidates.

The four co-chairmen of the 40-member House New Democrat Coalition have declared their opposition to the agreement, provoking an outcry from high-tech lobbying groups. The opposition is a major setback for the Bush administration, which is struggling to get House and Senate votes on the agreement before the Fourth-of-July congressional recess.

In a letter to the New Democrat Coalition last week, the heads of eight high-tech trade associations wrote: "CAFTA makes important progress in areas critical to the long-term success of our industry, and we consider the vote on this agreement to be one of the most important of 2005. We hope that you will reconsider your opposition."

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), a New Democrat co-chairman, acknowledged that "there is no question, it's a risky step" to oppose the agreement. But, he argued, the Bush administration, with Republican congressional backing, has undermined the worker-protection precedents for domestic and foreign workers that were added to treaties during the Clinton administration. The Bush administration's goal is to "take care of business first, second and last, and not do enough to make sure workers are getting their fair share," Smith said.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), another co-chairman, said "the promise of trade liberalization has not lived up to the rhetoric, certainly not for American workers." She said the administration did not discuss the agreement with Democrats during the negotiations, prompting her to tell U.S. trade officials that "it's at your own risk that you leave Democrats out and you only come to us when you are 30 votes down."

Both Smith and Tauscher accused House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) of supporting the weak labor and environmental provisions in CAFTA in an effort to build the case with business donors that they should abandon the Democratic Party altogether. "There is no question Tom DeLay and other Republicans are saying 'Don't give to Democrats,' " Smith said.

Dan Allen, a spokesman for DeLay, countered: "These groups can decide for themselves, and, sadly for the Democrats, the record proves that House Republicans have consistently supported efforts to expand our economy as well as expand foreign markets for American goods and services."

The high-tech industry has been one of the most outspoken supporters of free-trade pacts, and its leaders contend the Dominican Republic and Central American countries offer substantial export and investment opportunities.

Since the early 1990s, when the high-tech community first began to emerge as a business powerhouse, the two parties have been battling to win its support, especially campaign contributions. Bill Clinton and Al Gore led Democratic efforts and achieved considerable success. Since then, President Bush and Republican House and Senate leaders have put on a full-court press.

Total contributions from the high-tech industry had amounted to $1.6 million in 1990, but the total had grown to $28.6 million as of 2004, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In general, Republicans have had the advantage appealing to technology executives on legislative issues because the GOP has voted for trade, tort reform, stock-option and tax-cut bills by much higher margins than the Democrats. However, workers and corporate officers in the industry -- which is heavily concentrated on the West and East coasts -- tend to be liberal on many social issues, which makes the Democrats attractive to them.

The result, in recent years, has been near parity in campaign contributions, splitting 54 to 45 percent in the Democrats' favor in 2004, 51 to 48 percent in the GOP's favor in 2002. This stands in direct contrast to the strongly pro-Republican tilt in such industries as pharmaceuticals (66 to 34 percent pro-GOP), tobacco (74-26), health (62-38) and insurance (68-32).

Database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.

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