By  on June 27, 2005

WASHINGTON — A vote on the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement could come as early as this week. President Bush sent the pact to Congress late Thursday.

The Senate is expected to approve the pact, which under the President's Trade Promotion Authority cannot be amended. But the vote in the House is expected to be tight; the measure is opposed by varied interests, such as the textile and sugar industries, and labor-rights proponents.

The accord is one of the cornerstones of the President's trade agenda, but it has become a hot-button topic, beset by the issues of jobs, and the pros and cons of free trade, particularly with surging imports of textiles and apparel from China this year due to the elimination of global quotas. The trade debate over CAFTA has been the most heated since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

CAFTA drops tariffs on qualifying goods moving among the U.S., Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

"We've made excellent progress — with bipartisan majorities in both the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways & Means Committee approving the bill," said U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

Earlier this month, both committees were given the opportunity to recommend modifications to a draft of the accord. The only tweak that made it into the final bill was one from Rep. William Jefferson (D., La.) creating a biannual reporting mechanism on labor issues that will let Congress monitor the commitments to labor rights of countries that are parties to the agreement.

The administration argues that CAFTA will strengthen fragile Central American democracies and level the playing field by opening the market to U.S. producers. Some domestic textile producers support the agreement, citing the importance of Central America as an export market, while others in the textile camp contend that CAFTA will open a back door for Asian goods to enter the U.S. duty-free. Apparel importers have supported the agreement, as it would shore up a quick-turn sourcing alternative to Asia.

The sugar lobby and organized labor, citing weak enforcement of labor laws in the trading nations involved, have also mounted stiff resistance to CAFTA.

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