House narrowly approves CAFTA
Trade accord's passage a win for Bush
An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quotation to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The statement "Why in the world should people stick to the path of democracy if supposedly the richest, most generous democracy in the world rejects a trade agreement with these countries?" was made by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-California.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After an all-day, full-court press by the White House, the House early Thursday narrowly approved the controversial Central America Free Trade Agreement, a pact supporters say will help strengthen fledgling democracies.
The vote also helped President Bush avoid a potentially embarrassing political defeat on an issue he championed for months.
The final vote to approve the pact was 217 to 215. House leaders held the vote open for an hour -- well past the normal 15-minute voting time -- as they rounded up enough votes to win.
In the end, 25 Republicans defied their leadership, and their president, to oppose CAFTA, while two others didn't vote. Only 15 of the House's 202 Democrats broke ranks to support it.
As the House debated deep into the night, Vice President Dick Cheney, two Cabinet secretaries and the U.S. trade representative were all in the Capitol, working with GOP leaders to secure the votes of wavering Republicans.
With Democrats nearly united in opposition to CAFTA, Bush took the unusual step of coming to Capitol Hill in person Wednesday to lobby members of his own party, painting the trade pact as a national security issue.
The agreement, which passed the Senate in June, will eliminate trade barriers between the United States and five Central American countries -- Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica -- along with the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean.
Supporters said the agreement will improve the economies of those countries, increase the living standards of workers and strengthen fledgling democracies in a region awash in armed conflict 20 years ago.
"These freely elected presidents came to us and said, 'Help us,'" said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-California. "We help them by voting yes on CAFTA."
"Why in the world should people stick to the path of democracy if supposedly the most richest, most generous democracy in the world rejects a trade agreement with these countries?" Thomas asked.
Concluding the night's debate, Thomas also chided Democrats for abandoning their traditional support for free trade.
"They have urged, all night, protectionism. They have urged fear. They have urged that we don't do what's right," he said.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, insisted that Democrats were opposing the pact not because they oppose free trade but because they were against a flawed agreement.
"It is a step backward for workers in Central America and a job killer for here at home," she said.
"I wish that the CAFTA bill ... was an agreement that opened markets, included basic labor standards and protected our environment. This type of an agreement would have lifted the economies of both the United States and Central America. It would have attracted support from a large number of Democratic members."
While the amount of trade involved in CAFTA is small in comparison to the overall U.S. economy, the pact ran into strong opposition from organized labor, which pressed its Democratic allies to vote against it. Also, GOP lawmakers from states that produce textiles and sugar were concerned about the agreement's possible impact on their local industries.
One of those lawmakers, Rep. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, told his colleagues that 200,000 jobs in his state have been lost since in the decade since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and "CAFTA is NAFTA's ugly cousin."
Trying to overcome those local concerns, Bush, during his visit, "reminded us that we come here not only to represent our districts, but to represent the nation," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
"It is in the national interest that CAFTA passes. It is good for our national security in supporting these fledgling democracies at our back door. It is good for our effort against illegal immigration. It is good for our economy," DeLay said.
But Democrats charged that CAFTA didn't do enough to protect the environment and workers' rights and would further erode America's manufacturing base.
Pelosi predicted that Bush's win on CAFTA "will be a Pyrrhic victory for him, because we will take our message to the American people that we are the ones looking out for them."
Bush's painting of CAFTA as a national security issue "clearly resonated with members of the House," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
McClellan said Bush also told the group that once trade expands and lifts people out of poverty, CAFTA will address the problem of illegal immigration into the United States because "families will be more willing to want to stay home to support their families because they'll have more opportunities at home."
DeLay, too, said he thought the national security argument might have swayed some GOP lawmakers.
"There is no question that these democratically elected governments, asking collectively to increase the economic security of those countries, could make it a national security vote if we turn our backs on them," DeLay said.
But later in the night during the final debate, Pelosi scoffed at the GOP strategy of wrapping CAFTA in the cloak of national security.
"Trade alone, devoid of basic living and working standards, has not, and will not, promote security, nor will it lift developing nations out of poverty," she said. "Our national security will not be improved by exploiting workers in Central America."
CNN's Ed Henry and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
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