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Bush to woo Hispanic support for CAFTA trade pact


Bush to Woo Hispanic Support for CAFTA Trade Pact

18 April 2005

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush is expected to step up pressure for Congress to quickly pass a new free trade agreement with Central America, beginning with a speech this week to a Hispanic business group, industry officials said on Monday.

With anywhere from 20 to 40 members of Bush’s Republican Party expected to oppose the agreement in the House of Representatives, the White House could need the votes of at least two dozen House Democrats to win approval of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA.

The vote on CAFTA could happen before the end of May, one technology industry official said.

Until Monday, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a first-term Hispanic congressman from Texas, was the only House Democrat to publicly endorse CAFTA, which would lower barriers to U.S. exports to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Caribbean island of Dominican Republic.

The White House picked up the support of another Democrat, Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, on Monday.

Jefferson’s district includes the Port of New Orleans, which expects to see increased business from the pact. However, Louisiana sugar farmers bitterly oppose CAFTA, which they fear will lead to job losses by opening the door to more imports.

A few other Democrats, such as Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, are leaning in favor of the pact.

Both Bush and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, the first Hispanic to hold that job, are expected to lay out the administration’s case for CAFTA on Wednesday when they speak to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

They are expected to argue the agreement would bolster U.S. national security through increased stability in Central America, as well as boost U.S. exports.

Many Hispanic Democrats — such as Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Reps. Charles Gonzalez and Ruben Hinojosa of Texas — who voted for previous free trade pacts, are undecided about CAFTA. Others, like Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, are firmly opposed.

Slow progress on Social Security reform appears to have increased White House interest in a vote on CAFTA before the end of May, Ralph Hellman, senior vice president for the Information Technology Industry Council, said.

"I think given that (Social Security’s) moving on a slower pace, they see (CAFTA) as a vote that they can get done before the Memorial Day recess," Hellman said.

Tech companies such as Microsoft, Intel and IBM — many of which have operations in sugar-producing states — strongly support CAFTA.

"Certainly, we don’t mind a debate about ’big sugar’ versus high-tech. We think that’s a debate we can win," Hellman said.