By  on July 28, 2005

WASHINGTON — President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to Capitol Hill Wednesday to personally lobby for passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement as political pressure intensified in advance of a House vote on the accord that is crucial to the administration's global trade agenda.

Although the prospective vote appeared close, Republican leaders said they were cautiously optimistic the House would approve the pact, which seeks to eliminate tariffs on goods that flow between the U.S. and El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. The Senate has approved CAFTA.

Bush and Cheney met behind closed doors with members of Congress as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told reporters the trade battle would be tough, but CAFTA would pass with little support from Democrats. The House has 231 Republicans, 202 Democrats, one Independent and one vacancy.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas (R., Calif.) was a bit more circumspect, but said leaders were moving in the right direction in terms of picking up enough votes.

Opposition to CAFTA has remained strong among Southern textile-state lawmakers, members representing sugar growers and a large bloc of Democrats. The Bush administration has been aggressively trying to chip away at the opposition to CAFTA and has leaned on Southern GOP loyalists to find the votes it needs for passage.

The administration views passage as critical to its goal of reducing barriers to free trade. Opponents have said it would encourage companies to move more production to nations that provide low wages and little protection for workers. Supporters, however, have argued that the measure would boost U.S. exports. The debate has occurred against the backdrop of a trade surplus with China that reached a record $162 billion last year.

The political maneuvering secured last-minute votes from at least four Republican textile-state lawmakers, including Reps. Bob Inglis (R., S.C.), J. Gresham Barrett (R., S.C.), Michael Rogers (R., Ala.) and Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.), who were trying to get better assurances about three proposed changes to the textile rule of origin as a condition for supporting CAFTA. Rep. Sue Myrick (R., N.C.) and John Linder (R. Ga.) had also said they support CAFTA.

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