CAFTA Reflects Democrats' Shift From Trade Bills

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Twelve years ago, amid heated rhetoric over job losses and heavy union pressure, the House passed the North American Free Trade Agreement with 102 Democratic votes. This month, as President Bush pushes the far less economically significant Central American Free Trade Agreement, he will be lucky to get more than 10.

A long, slow erosion of Democratic support for trade legislation in the House is turning into a rout, as Democrats who have never voted against trade deals vow to turn their backs on CAFTA. The sea change -- driven by redistricting, mounting partisanship and real questions about the results of a decade's worth of trade liberalization -- is creating a major headache for Bush and Republican leaders as they scramble to salvage their embattled trade agreement. A trade deal that passed the Senate last Thursday, 54 to 45, with 10 Democratic votes, could very well fail in the House this month.

But the Democrats' near-unanimous stand against CAFTA carries long-term risks for a party leadership struggling to regain the appearance of a moderate governing force, some Democrats acknowledge. A swing toward isolationism could reinforce voters' suspicions that the party is beholden to organized labor and is anti-business, while jeopardizing campaign contributions, especially from Wall Street.

Without control of the White House or either chamber of Congress, the "competition for the microphone" has intensified in the party, said Dave McCurdy, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma who heads the Electronic Industries Alliance. And the moderates are losing.

"It's difficult for Democrats to get through a message that we're pro-trade when we're voting no," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who plans to vote against a trade agreement for the first time in his nearly 20 years in the House. "That is a clear risk that we're running, but I don't think we have the opportunity to avoid it."

Cardin and other free-trade Democrats concede that many of the Democratic opponents are motivated by partisan politics: They want to see Bush lose a major legislative initiative or, at the very least, make Republicans from districts hit hard by international trade take a dangerous vote in favor of a deal their constituents oppose. Dozens of Republicans in districts dependent on the textile industry, the sugar growers or small manufacturers have already said they will vote against the bill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) privately warned Democrats last month that a vote for CAFTA is a vote to stay in the minority.

"This is hardball," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. of Virginia, one of only five Democrats publicly committed to voting for the agreement. "I feel like chopped liver with the [Democratic] caucus."

The four other committed Democrats are Reps. William J. Jefferson (La.), John S. Tanner (Tenn.)., Henry Cuellar (Tex.) and Norman D. Dicks (Wash.).

But a core group of as many as 50 pro-trade Democrats are voting against CAFTA; those lawmakers say the agreement is a step backward on labor standards after years of steady gains under previous trade accords.

They complain that the administration failed to consult them during negotiations, taking their votes for granted. And they say past trade agreements were accompanied by increased support for worker-retraining programs, education efforts and aid to dislocated workers -- support that the president has not provided.

"Free and open trade is an important component to widening the winner's circle for all Americans, but it's not a Johnny One Note part of the puzzle," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), a co-chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, who voted for the most contentious trade bills of the past half-dozen years.

The steady erosion in Democratic support for free-trade deals has been dramatic. NAFTA, negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and pushed to a vote by President Bill Clinton, passed the House 234 to 200, with 102 Democratic votes. Among them were today's House Democratic leadership, Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.).

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