WASHINGTON - In an attempt to pass a controversial trade agreement with Central America, the Bush administration yesterday indicated for the first time that it might be willing to negotiate a deal to benefit U.S. sugar producers, the major roadblock so far to passing the agreement.
News of a possible sugar deal emerged after the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA, lurched forward in the Senate Finance Committee, where, by an 11-8 vote, the committee recommended its passage.
A similar nonbinding vote on CAFTA is expected today in the House Ways and Means Committee.
The Senate committee vote was made possible by a last-minute offer by the White House and by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to meet with Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican, a pivotal vote on the Finance Committee, to discuss sugar's role in CAFTA. Based on a promise of "good-faith meetings," Thomas voted in favor of CAFTA.
However, after the Finance Committee meeting, Thomas said: "This isn't the end of things here. I'm reserving my right to vote no if we don't come up with something."
The Bush administration signed the CAFTA agreement more than a year ago with five Central American countries: Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Dominican Republic was also part of the agreement.
Congress passes most trade deals in a matter of months, but the administration has struggled to rally support for CAFTA, which has been fiercely opposed by labor organizations that fear the loss of American jobs and by the powerful sugar industry, which contends that CAFTA would open the door to more imported sugar and lead to the demise of the domestic sugar industry.
Currently most imported sugar is effectively blocked from entering the United States by tariffs designed to protect U.S. producers, a unique program that enrages free-trade advocates.
After the vote, CAFTA supporters expressed cautious optimism. "Our expectations were not high, and they were exceeded today," said U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman. "This is the first successful step in a long process."
Supporters of CAFTA argue that it is a good deal for the U.S. because it eventually eliminates tariffs on U.S. imports into the Central America market while bolstering fragile democracies in the region.
White House officials did not return repeated calls for comment.
Phillip Hayes, a spokesman for the American Sugar Alliance, said he didn't consider the Senate committee's vote a defeat. Noting that most senators have traditionally supported free trade, he said the vote "underscores what a tough time CAFTA is having.
"Getting this much opposition to CAFTA in the Senate is beyond our wildest dreams," he said.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.