WASHINGTON — The Senate Finance Committee began considering the Central American Free Trade Agreement Tuesday, setting the stage for a vote in the full Senate this week.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), chairman of the committee, had to cut the session short because of a hearing on Medicaid. Grassley said formal consideration of the CAFTA legislation will resume today. The committee is expected to vote on the trade bill and send it to the full Senate either “favorably or unfavorably.” Senate GOP leaders will then determine when to schedule debate and a vote.

The committee vote is expected to be close. It approved the draft legislation 11 to nine. An “unfavorable” vote would indicate to the Bush administration that opposition remains strong and the bill’s passage is uncertain.

The House Ways and Means Committee has slated its consideration of the measure for Thursday. A full House vote is not expected until July.

Traditionally, the House votes first on trade legislation. But if there is strong opposition, the Senate can take it up first, attempt to pass the bill and build momentum to pressure House members into supporting the measure.

Opposition to CAFTA remains strong, even in the Senate, where it must overcome senators representing sugar interests in states such as Wisconsin, Montana and North Dakota, who fear a surge in Central American sugar exports will hurt U.S. producers.

Sen. Craig Thomas (R., Wyo.), who cast the deciding vote to approve the draft legislation earlier this month, made it clear the Bush administration will have to offer a better deal than the one on the table if it wants to gain the support of senators who are concerned about the sugar provision.

“I am a little concerned about the speed with which we are seeking to wrap this up,” Thomas said. “Sugar is a sticking point for members and we need to find an answer to the problem.”

The existing proposal to put a cap on sugar imports from the region is “short-term,” he said.

Sens. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) said they plan to vote against CAFTA, citing the sugar provisions as a key factor.

This story first appeared in the June 29, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Essentially [Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns] has offered to do what the law already requires him to do — to purchase surplus sugar in the U.S. market. That is no deal,” Baucus said. “I am disappointed that some may use this thin cloak as cover to vote for a deal that is unambiguously bad for the sugar industry.”

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