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.).
When Clinton pushed permanent normalized trade relations with China in 2000, he secured the support of 73 Democrats, including the party's point man on trade, Rep. Sander M. Levin (Mich.). By 2002, the final vote to grant Bush the ability to negotiate "fast-track" trade deals that cannot be amended by Congress garnered 25 Democrats. The tally on CAFTA, expected after the Fourth of July recess if the White House can find the votes, could yield just 10 Democratic supporters.
The trade deal would create a NAFTA-like free-trade zone between the United States and six countries -- Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua -- that would wipe out most of the quotas and tariffs on imported goods and services. Those countries' economic power is tiny -- their combined gross domestic products are still smaller than the Czech Republic's -- but the deal has provoked big claims from both sides.
Proponents say CAFTA is especially beneficial to the United States, which has already eliminated most trade barriers with the countries. But opponents say the deal steps back from previous commitments to stronger environmental and labor standards, relying instead on existing statutes in CAFTA countries that are modest and weakly enforced.
Some textile firms fear that the deal will afford Chinese textile makers a backdoor avenue to export to the U.S. market duty-free, whereas U.S. sugar growers say even the modest export allowance to Central American sugar growers would undermine the existing price-support system and invite future trade deals to dismantle the system altogether.
Such fears are not new, but the political response to them -- especially from Democrats -- is unprecedented. That has pro-business Democrats worried. During the 1990s, party leaders used pro-trade positions to show moderate voters and business interests they are willing to stand up to their labor union backers and govern from the center, said Marshall Wittmann of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. For fear of handing their GOP adversaries a short-term victory, he said, they are jeopardizing all that work.
"If the Democrats want to stay competitive on the national political stage, they can't retreat from global engagement," McCurdy agreed.
"I really believe our challenge is to be competitive and win in the world economy, and it's hard to assume national leadership if you have a protectionist bent," said Al From, the Leadership Council's chief executive.
Administration officials are inoculating themselves against Democratic attacks with a letter from former president Jimmy Carter imploring support for CAFTA. "Some improvements could be made in the trade bill, particularly on the labor protection side," Carter wrote, "but, more importantly, our own national security and hemispheric influence will be enhanced" by passage.
Other Democratic supporters include a who's who list from the Clinton administration, including former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and Cabinet members Warren M. Christopher, Henry G. Cisneros, Dan Glickman, William J. Perry and Donna E. Shalala, not to mention the presidents of the CAFTA countries.
"We have to listen to our neighbors who say this is important to them," Jefferson said. "We've had five presidents come to plead with us to do this for them."
Perhaps more troubling may be the business interests that have promised to withhold support for CAFTA opponents. Two business lobbyists -- one Republican, one Democrat -- said some corporate groups will be sympathetic to the Democrats' position.
In a highly charged partisan atmosphere, Republicans intentionally marginalized free-trade Democrats during negotiations and then presented them with a take-it-or-leave it deal, goading them to oppose it, said the lobbyists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid harming relationships on Capitol Hill. They contend that the Republicans set the trap into which the New Democrats are walking.
But many other business groups with strong ties to the GOP will see the shift on trade as confirmation of their suspicions about New Democrats' business commitments, the Democratic lobbyist said. What little was left of business contributions to Democrats will dwindle further.
"For some business groups, it's 'Aha. See? I told you,' " he said.