By  on July 18, 2005

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will intensify its push this week to shore up votes for the Central American Free Trade Agreement as a showdown in the House draws closer.

The administration is trying to chip away at opposition to the trade accord, which proposes to lower and eliminate tariffs on goods and services between the U.S. and Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. The Senate approved CAFTA on June 30.

Republicans from states hit hard by imports trade have joined blocs of Democrats who oppose the accord's labor provisions, and the administration has turned its focus to Southern GOP loyalists from textile states to try to find enough votes for the treaty's passage.

The latest chapter in the political deal-making has brought together U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman with Reps. Bob Inglis (R., S.C.), J. Gresham Barrett (R., S.C.), Michael Rogers (R., Ala.), Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.) and Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.).

Inglis said in an interview that Portman had made some progress on fine-tuning or amplifying three previous pledges the administration had made to the textile industry, but that progress suffered a setback on one of the promises last week. Nicaragua, which received allowances to use foreign fabrics and yarn from outside of the U.S. and the region, apparently backed off a pledge to preserve some $95 million in existing U.S. business. Inglis said Portman is working to bring the Nicaraguans back on board.

The two other pledges appear to be on track, Inglis said. One is the administration's revision of its provision on cumulation, which allows a limited amount of woven, denim and wool apparel made in the CAFTA countries from Mexican and Canadian fabric to qualify for duty-free treatment in the U.S. Inglis said Portman's office agreed to put off cumulation with Mexico until it improves its customs procedures.

In addition, the administration is closer to getting firm commitments from the CAFTA countries to support a change to a treaty provision for pocketing fabric, to require that it be made by one of the signatory countries.

The changes will likely need Congressional approval. Inglis said he is asking Congress to act before the full vote on CAFTA, expected by the end of the month.Inglis, who remains undecided, said he won't vote for CAFTA unless both sides "sew up" the package before the House votes.

Republican Rep. Sue Myrick, who toured with President Bush through parts of her North Carolina district Friday and is the only one in her 13-member delegation to publicly support CAFTA, said in an interview that "support is building."

Bush, who toured the R.L. Stowe Mills plant outside Charlotte, N.C., said in a speech that CAFTA would open the Central American market of 44 million consumers to U.S. exports, which face high tariffs in many sectors.

"It we can get rid of the tariffs, it is more competitive, which makes it more likely we'll be able to — in our neighborhood — compete with Asian manufacturers," Bush said.

North Carolina exported more than $1.7 billion worth of manufactured goods to CAFTA countries in 2004, primarily in textiles and apparel.

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