By  on June 30, 2005

WASHINGTON — The Senate Finance Committee voted Wednesday to send the Central American Free Trade Agreement to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation.

The affirmative voice vote paves the way for Senate balloting, possibly by the end of the week.

CAFTA, which is intended to eliminate trade barriers with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, is expected to face tough going in the Senate. The Bush administration has made the accord a cornerstone of its trade agenda but has not resolved the concerns of senators representing sugar-producing states that fear a surge in imports.

Nonetheless, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said in a statement: "Step by step, we're making good progress and building momentum for its successful passage."

The House Ways and Means Committee is likely to vote on CAFTA today, but a full vote in the House is not expected until after Congress returns from the July Fourth recess on July 11.

Sen. Craig Thomas (R., Wyo.), who was involved in negotiations with the administration and sugar industry representatives, voted against the bill.

However, the administration won the backing of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.), who reversed his position and said he would vote for CAFTA after Portman made commitments to increase funding for labor law enforcement in Central America and find more money to help subsistence-level farmers in Central America.

Portman sent a letter to Bingaman on the eve of the committee vote promising $40 million for labor and environmental enforcement in the 2006 fiscal year. He said the administration would support the same level of funding in the next three fiscal years.

Another pledge was to take $3 million out of the $40 million each year for three years to fund a biannual workers' rights monitoring initiative by the International Labor Organization.

Portman said the administration also would commit $10 million a year for five years for development assistance to rural farmers in El Salvador, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic who could be hurt by a surge in U.S. exports. That offer stands until the three countries are eligible to apply for U.S. grants.

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