Earlier this month, at a closed-door meeting of Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was blunt: Any Democrat who votes for the Central American Free Trade Agreement will allow an embattled Republican to squirm off the hook and vote no. A vote for CAFTA, she said, was a vote to keep the GOP in the majority.
It was a speech that was tough enough to make the party's free-traders cringe, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), but both parties are treating the coming showdown over CAFTA like a political donnybrook. Democratic leaders are leaning hard on members to keep defections to a tiny minority, while the Bush administration considers major concessions on sugar crop subsidies and China trade.
If those don't work, administration officials may have to resort to old-fashioned political pork. "With the Democrats almost united, we have to deal with the most protectionist Republicans in Congress, and that means [dealing with] textiles, sugar and whoever else comes along," said one U.S. trade official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing. "If you take 170 Democrats off the playing field, it means we're going to have to cut some deals."
"An awful lot is stake here, and control of Congress is the grand prize," said Moran, one of only five Democrats who have publicly pledged to vote for the treaty. "The stakes are very, very high."
From an economic standpoint, the Central American Free Trade Agreement appears to be a relatively minor treaty. The accord would extend NAFTA-like trading preferences to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, six countries whose combined economies -- at $85 billion in 2003 -- are smaller than the Czech Republic's.
But with a growing backlash against free trade, the treaty has grown in political importance. Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, whose upstate South Carolina district includes much of the nation's decimated textile industry, said he has received more than 1,000 inquiries on CAFTA, making it the hottest issue since he returned to Congress this year.
In past trade agreements, dozens of Democrats have joined Republican majorities to help secure passage. But this time, as few as 10 may vote for it. That means Republicans from hard-hit districts representing textile mills, machine-tool manufacturers and sugar growers will have to vote yes if President Bush is to avoid a major political defeat.
"What's different is how much this has become a party-line issue for the Democrats, which has really raised the pressure on Republicans," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.).
Administration officials had hoped to win passage of the treaty before Congress's July 4 recess, but they acknowledge they do not have the votes -- yet. Indeed, Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) said between 20 and 23 House Republicans are solidly against the treaty.
But the White House is working hard to chip away at the opposition on both sides of the aisle. On June 15, in a letter to 14 members of the House Democratic Hispanic Caucus, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez tried to answer concerns over the enforcement of labor laws in the CAFTA countries, offering "a long-term, sustained commitment to labor capacity-building" in Central America as well as an international donors conference before the end of July to win aid to the countries' labor ministries and labor courts.
A U.S. trade official, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing, said the White House has secured $20 million to beef up enforcement of labor and environmental laws in the CAFTA countries.
Sugar-state lawmakers late last week presented the White House with a series of demands drafted by the sugar industry to assuage concerns that the treaty would undermine the U.S. system of sugar price supports. They include government purchases of surplus U.S. sugar to make up for new imports from Central America and assurances that sugar will be excluded from future trade deals.
And yesterday, Bush invited 14 wavering House members to the White House to listen to their demands. Inglis told Bush he could vote for the treaty only if a separate, binding agreement is reached with each of the signatories to ensure that cheap Chinese textiles could not be brought into Central America, then shipped duty-free to the United States. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) said Bush is unlikely to win him over, but he wanted to hear how far the White House is willing to go to force China to float its currency.
Such overtures have some leading Democrats convinced CAFTA will ultimately pass, perhaps by a single vote. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade, said he has not been swayed by a personal visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and an audience with the president. But, he said, others probably will be.
"I always had thought it would be impossible to pass this thing because of the hemorrhaging of Republican votes," he said, "but that was before I saw what they were doing to get Democratic votes. If there's no limit to what they'll pay, they've got to win."
So far, trade officials concede such talks have yielded only limited results. After one conversation with Bush and three with Gutierrez, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) said he has been won over.
"I am interested in doing the right thing, not in making one political party look bad," Cuellar said. "We cannot politicize this type of agreement."
But Democratic leaders aren't about to bend. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) said the White House cannot cut development assistance to Latin America and allow congressional Republicans to pass anti-immigrant measures, such as the recent clampdown on driver's license issuances, then come to Latino lawmakers promising aid in exchange for their votes.
"I make of it all to be hollow promises, too little, too late and, to be honest with you, incredibly offensive," he said.