Bush signs free trade bill
Signature caps close battle in Congress
Washington ? President Bush signed a hard-fought free trade pact with five Central American nations and the Dominican Republic on Tuesday, saying the measure would “advance peace and prosperity throughout the region.”
Bush’s signature at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House put the final touch on the Central America Free Trade Agreement, a measure approved by Congress last week with just a two-vote margin in the House after a bruising battle over the future of U.S. trade policy.
That 217-215 vote handed the president an important political victory after months of intense lobbying by the president and his trade officials.
“CAFTA is more than a trade bill,” Bush said, noting that the measure would help strengthen fragile young democracies in Latin America – and show those countries that the United States would stand by their side.
Joining Bush at the signing ceremony were congressional sponsors of the pact and committee leaders and diplomats from the countries that are part of the agreement.
The agreement, with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, removes trade barriers and opens up the region to U.S. goods and services. It also takes steps to facilitate investment in the area and strengthen protections for intellectual property.
“The bill I’m about to sign is good for America,” Bush said.
The measure drew heavy Democratic opposition as well as some GOP defections. Critics argued that it would send more U.S. jobs overseas, although Bush said it would open more markets in the region to U.S. goods.
The president also has cast the measure as an important component of his second-term vow to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world to combat terrorism.
“I welcome the opportunity to make our nation more secure by strengthening our ties with democracies that share our belief in free markets and free governments,” Bush said.
Bush, in his final push for passage last week, also emphasized that CAFTA was in the national security interests of the United States because the economic partnership would reinforce democratic governments in an area that until recently was torn by civil war and political turmoil.
CAFTA becomes law
What it means: President Bush signs the hard-won Central American Free Trade Agreement, which is intended to remove trade barriers, facilitate investment and strengthen intellectual property protections with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Problems: Critics from both political parties say the agreement could send American jobs overseas and contribute to the exploitation of Central American workers.
More in store?: Next up could be a free trade agreement with Bahrain, followed by others with Thailand and Andean countries.
Source: The Associated Press
While the economic impact for the United States is modest – exports to the region are now about $15 billion out of total U.S. exports in goods and services of about $1 trillion annually – the agreement became the medium for a fierce debate over trade policy.
Democrats overwhelmingly opposed CAFTA, arguing that free trade agreements negotiated by both the Clinton and Bush administrations prompted the flight of American jobs overseas. They also said the labor rights provisions in CAFTA were too weak to protect workers in impoverished Central American countries from exploitation.
Dozens of Republicans either agreed that free trade deals endangered U.S. jobs or felt that CAFTA was a threat to the sugar or textile industries in their districts.
Bush and his top trade officials, led by U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, concentrated on these Republicans, offering several side deals to protect the sugar and textile industries and appealing to them to put the interests of the nation, and the party, above parochial concerns.
The outcome was in doubt until after midnight last Wednesday, with GOP leaders holding the 15-minute vote open for more than an hour while they negotiated with wavering members. In the end, 27 Republicans opposed the legislation and 15 Democrats supported it.
The participating nations signed the agreement in May 2004, and the Senate, generally more sympathetic to trade agreements, passed the bill implementing the agreement last June.
Three countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have ratified the pact, which will go into effect as soon as those countries and the United States agree on a date. The other three countries have two years to approve it.
Since Bush took office, Congress has signed off on free trade agreements with Jordan, Singapore, Chile, Australia and Morocco. None of those accords faced the difficulty of CAFTA, mainly because the poverty in some CAFTA countries made labor rights a more sensitive issue.
Congressional rejection of CAFTA also could have made it more difficult for the administration to negotiate and win approval of other trade agreements.
Next up could be a free trade agreement with Bahrain, followed by others with Thailand and Andean countries.
Portman went directly from his CAFTA victory to Geneva, where the United States is trying to advance World Trade Organization talks, known as the Doha round, to reduce global trade barriers. Also on the agenda is an effort to come together on a free trade agreement encompassing the entire Western Hemisphere.