The Bush administration acknowledged yesterday that a congressional vote on a broad free-trade agreement with Central American nations won't be held until after the November election, even as U.S. negotiators announced the completion of a trade deal with Bahrain.
The admission that the White House won't submit the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) for a congressional vote before the election demonstrates the politically charged nature of the trade issue in the campaign season. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry has accused President Bush of failing to protect U.S. workers from foreign competition, and voter anxiety about job losses has made even many Republican lawmakers leery of casting a vote for free trade with low-wage countries.
At a news conference yesterday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick conceded that the administration is planning to seek votes before the election only on two relatively noncontroversial free-trade pacts, with Australia and Morocco. He held out the prospect that CAFTA might be approved in a lame-duck congressional session after the election.
"We are trying to press Australia [in Congress] . . . and I hope Morocco, too," Zoellick said. But as for CAFTA, he said, "I have to be a relentless optimist on this job, so I even hope that there will be some session after the election, [and] maybe we can get that through."
On other key trade issues, the administration has not shied from taking a strong stance in favor of open markets this year. Last month it bluntly rebuffed critics of trade with China, turning down requests by labor and industry groups to consider imposing duties on Chinese goods over Beijing's treatment of workers and its currency policy.
Since last December, when negotiations for CAFTA were completed, congressional leaders have been voicing doubts that the deal could win approval this year. That is mainly because of criticism from Democrats that the accord doesn't do enough to protect workers' rights in the countries involved, which include El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Complicating matters further, the administration completed talks with the Dominican Republic later than the others. That has narrowed the window of time in which the White House is allowed to submit the deal to Congress for a vote.
A signing ceremony for CAFTA is scheduled for today, and Democratic opponents of the agreement held a teleconference with reporters yesterday to criticize the administration for failing to include enforceable guarantees for workers such as the right to organize and bargain collectively.
"This approach is on a midnight train to nowhere, either in this election year or any other year," said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking minority member on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee.
Kerry has said that he opposes CAFTA as drafted, and Levin said that if elected president, Kerry could renegotiate it.
Zoellick lashed out at the Democrats for opposing CAFTA, pointing out that they were thwarting the wishes of Central America's elected governments, some of which had won elections running on free-trade platforms.
"You'll pardon me if I have a little bit of an ironic smile when primarily people from the United States decide to tell democracies in Central America what's good for them. We used to call that imperialism," he said.
"This is a wonderful example of how people who claim to be concerned about poor, developing countries in fact have some other agenda."
But he allowed that some Republican lawmakers would also vote against the deal.
The accord with Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf, is the third such agreement with an allied Arab country. Besides the pact with Morocco, the United States has had a free-trade arrangement with Jordan since 2001. The administration envisions such deals as a way to promote free markets and economic development in the Middle East and foster moderation in the Muslim world.
Zoellick called the Bahrain agreement "a pace setter showing the way to implement the president's initiative for building prosperity, opportunity and hope in the Middle East."
But as with other bilateral agreements, the impact on the $10 trillion-plus U.S. economy is minuscule. Bahrain has a population of about 700,000, and U.S. exports to the country were about $500 million last year.