The Central American Free Trade Agreement survived a test yesterday when the Senate Finance Committee voted 11 to 9 to recommend that the White House send the treaty to Congress with only minimal changes to the implementing legislation.
But senators from both parties chastised the White House for what they saw as unwillingness to consult Congress on treaty concerns or help promote the trade agreement to skeptical voters.
"The White House has been missing in action when it comes to selling this agreement to Congress and the American people," Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) said. "If the president wants this passed, he'd better get personally involved."
The Finance Committee was considering nonbinding recommendations to President Bush before the White House submits the treaty's implementing legislation for ratification. Under the president's "fast track" trade negotiation authority, the treaty itself may not be amended before a vote, but Congress has some leeway to influence how it would be implemented. The Bush administration and its business allies have pressured Republicans to avoid recommendations that would alter the treaty significantly.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) had prepared amendments that could have gutted the treaty's sugar provisions, designed to raise the export quotas of sugar growers in Central America and the Dominican Republic. But with talks between the White House and sugar industry possible this week, Conrad decided it was not worth jeopardizing the prospects of real change for a nonbinding vote, aides said.
"My sense is the votes weren't there today," U.S. Trade Representative Robert J. Portman said. "If they thought the votes were there, you would have seen the amendments."
The committee did adopt an amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) calling for additional funding for programs to assist workers dislocated by trade agreements so such programs can apply to service workers as well as manufacturing employees.
The House Ways and Means Committee will go through the same exercise today, but Republicans appear to have the votes to thwart any changes to the treaty's implementation. The pivotal fight could come on the House floor, where the administration is struggling for majority support. The White House hopes to force a final vote before the July 4 congressional recess.