WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, appearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday to lobby for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, said momentum for Congressional passage is on the Bush Administration’s side.

The trade chief joined House Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to stress the importance of the agreement for the agricultural community, saying it would open the market to U.S. exports. Many lawmakers representing varied constituencies, from sugar to textiles, have been outspoken in opposition to CAFTA.

The administration maintains that the pact with Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua is a key component in expanding trade among free markets and boosting regional security.

Portman said Goodlatte’s endorsement was a “major step [forward] for passage.”

“The more we talk about this agreement, the more we have the opportunity to get the facts out and the more we make progress on moving forward toward a positive vote on this agreement,” he said at a press briefing.

But, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, has expressed concerns about CAFTA, and Democratic lawmakers representing sugar interests said they oppose the deal because duty-free imports from the region could hurt the U.S. industry.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) said he expects a poll conducted by party leaders will be taken after the Memorial Day recess and closer to the initial Senate committee consideration of CAFTA, which is slated for the week of June 13. Congress returns from the break on June 6.

At the Capitol, a business coalition held a rally and renewed the effort to garner support for the agreement.

Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, a supporter of CAFTA, said the AAFA has focused on “debunking the myths” about the trade accord and will keep lobbying members of Congress through the recess.

Missy Branson, senior vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, which also supports CAFTA, said, “It is critical to the U.S. textile industry to maintain a duty-free platform in this hemisphere if it is going to survive.”

This story first appeared in the May 26, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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