At a closed-door meeting of House Republicans yesterday, Rep. Bill Thomas (Calif.) sidled up to the lectern and hinted that the leadership might look more favorably on lawmakers' requests for highways and bridges if they vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, according to three GOP witnesses.

"Just to let you know, we're having some problems with the highway bill. It probably won't be finished until after the CAFTA vote," the deadly serious chairman of the Ways and Means Committee said to knowing laughter.

In the scope of trade deals, CAFTA is a minor economic matter, extending duty-free trading privileges to six Latin American countries whose combined economies are smaller than the Czech Republic's. But as a political fight, the deal has snowballed into a major showdown ahead of the final House vote next week.

"CAFTA has been given symbolic status by both sides that is well outside its true economic importance," said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who opposed the agreement in the Ways and Means Committee, then promised to support it next week after securing a promised vote on China trade legislation. "But that does not mean it does not have enormous political significance," he said.

Both sides agree a CAFTA defeat would weaken President Bush's hand on the rest of his legislative agenda while casting a pall on looming trade negotiations with far greater significance: the hemispheric Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and the Doha round of global trade talks. The Senate recently approved CAFTA.

"Clearly a CAFTA defeat would have larger implications than just the agreement," said Matthew Niemeyer, assistant U.S. trade representative for congressional affairs. "And that's why we won't fail."

Bush has held eight meetings with House members, three with senators, and appeared at five dedicated CAFTA events, the latest scheduled for today at the Organization of American States. Since U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman took office 21/2 months ago, he has held about 100 meetings on and off Capitol Hill.

According to administration and House aides, the White House has authorized Republican leaders to secure votes with whatever is at hand, from amendments to the highway and energy bills to the still incomplete annual appropriations bills. Side deals may be in the works on textiles and sugar. House leaders have even approved a vote on a slate of punitive China trade provisions that risks alienating a trading partner that dwarfs Central America.

"No one's opposing CAFTA yet," said Julia Hughes, a lobbyist for textile and apparel importers, who is anxious about the concessions already on the table. "But they're really taking away some of the benefits that make it meaningful."

On the other side, Democrats and their allies have countered with threats to cut off fund-raising support for any Democrat flirting with a "yes" vote. Trade unions have used radio advertising to keep up the pressure, especially on three Republicans in the Syracuse, N.Y., area. Constituents of Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (Tex.), an undecided Democrat, have been subjected to two rounds of automated, pro-CAFTA phone calls, while his San Antonio staff was targeted by laid-off Levi Strauss & Co. workers protesting the deal.

"There's a whole lot of pushing and shoving, on both sides actually," Gonzalez said. "There have been some difficult votes around here in the past years, but this one, you've never seen anything like it."

So far, administration officials concede they still do not have the votes to pass CAFTA in the House. They will likely be five to 10 votes short when the proposed agreement goes to a final tally Wednesday or Thursday. Opponents say they have 28 solid Republican votes against the pact, while only a dozen Democrats may back it.

The White House had hoped to win over blocs of undecideds -- textile representatives, sugar industry allies, immigration opponents, or lawmakers from manufacturing areas rife with anti-China feelings. But those blocs have barely budged. Now, the administration is going vote by vote.

"We're not there yet," Niemeyer said, "but we're quickly cleaning up undecideds and are clearly within striking distance."

To win over Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and possibly a few more textile-state Republicans, Thomas secured a promise this week from the six CAFTA countries to halt the use of Chinese-made apparel pockets and linings for their duty-free clothing exports to the United States.

English was granted a vote on his China trade provisions. And sugar-state lawmakers are wringing out new concessions that could allow sugar growers access to the federally mandated ethanol market.

"I feel very good about the fact that CAFTA is helping to secure and lift up our own neighborhood [in Centra America]," said Rep. Adam Putnam (R), whose Central Florida district includes sugar cane growers. "I just want to make sure it doesn't throw an industry that I support overboard."

House members say the president has expressed some exasperation about the amount of time he has spent on the deal. He has had to reach out to some strange bedfellows.

And no potential ally has proven too small for attention. Earlier this month, Bush aides surprised Anne Alonzo, approaching the former Clinton administration official and seeking an invitation for the president to address her small pro-CAFTA Hispanic Alliance for Free Trade. That speech is planned for today.

"We're not a big mean fighting machine. It's just me and him," Alonzo said, pointing to an intern.

Staff writers Paul Blustein, Laura Blumenfeld and Mike Allen contributed to this report.