The Senate approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement last night, giving momentum to one of the most hotly debated trade deals negotiated by Washington in years.
The pact still must pass the House, where it faces overwhelming opposition from Democrats and enough Republicans to make the outcome uncertain. But the growing bipartisan support it has received in the past couple of days, plus its endorsement yesterday by a 25 to 16 vote in the House Ways and Means Committee, has encouraged backers.
The Senate vote, 54 to 45, "is a clear sign that CAFTA will be approved by the entire U.S. Congress," said Calman Cohen, director of the Emergency Committee on American Trade, a business group.
The accord would essentially extend the North American Free Trade Agreement to six Latin American countries, lowering or eliminating barriers to trade between the United States and Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
Because the economies of those Latin nations are so small, the accord's impact on the U.S. economy would be minimal. But it is seen as a bellwether of U.S. willingness to enter into new trade agreements.
The countries involved are much poorer than other nations, such as Australia and Singapore, which also have free-trade deals with the United States.
They also have dismal records on protecting their workers. Democrats have denounced the deal for offering inadequate provisions on labor rights.
But the White House has turned around opponents by offering concessions to lawmakers from sugar-producing states, who feared the pact would open the door to a flood of sugar imports.