By  on September 21, 2005

WASHINGTON — Having caught their breath following this summer's fight to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement, politicians are picking up the drumbeat again.

"We've got to move beyond the inward-looking mentality that opposes greater cooperation and ignores where our competition will be in 10 or 15 years," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Tuesday, noting that countries such as China and South Korea also are trying to become more competitive global players through free-trade pacts.

Key to the Bush administration's trade agenda, CAFTA squeaked through the House in July amid strong resistance from some domestic textile producers. The pact reduces trade barriers between the U.S., Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, and potentially Nicaragua and Costa Rica when those countries approve it.

"Our driving objective should be to make the flow of commerce within the Americas both safe and seamless," said Gutierrez, addressing a meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America.

The two-day meeting that ended Tuesday also offered Congressional views on the future of trade from Reps. James Moran (D., Va.) and Kevin Brady (R., Tex.).

Brady saw the passage of CAFTA as boding well for further trade initiatives, including the 34-nation Free Trade Area of the Americas and the negotiations within the World Trade Organization that aim to eliminate global tariffs.

"DR-Cafta was not the end," he said. "It's the beginning, I think a catalyst, for more trade and better and open markets."

As negotiators sit down for a 12th round of talks for a free-trade agreement with Andean nations in Colombia this week, Moran — one of the 15 Democrats to vote for CAFTA — said an agreement for the western hemisphere should be the ultimate objective.

"Trade is not as much any more about policy in the United States as it is about politics," he said. "I don't think that the longer-term outlook, at least for the next three years, is very encouraging."

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