WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and key lawmakers struck an 11th-hour deal with U.S. sugar producers to shore up congressional support for a controversial trade agreement, senators said yesterday.
A full Senate vote could come as early as today on the U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The White House believes it now has won the crucial support of many lawmakers from sugar-producing states who previously opposed CAFTA, helping ensure the approval of a free-trade agreement that has been a top priority for President Bush.
With the deal made with the staunchest foes of CAFTA, the Senate Finance Committee approved the trade agreement yesterday morning. The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to approve the trade agreement today.
The Senate was scheduled to begin debate on CAFTA last night, and follow through with a vote today.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican who chairs the Senate agriculture committee, announced the deal with the sugar industry just hours before the debate was to start. He is among the lawmakers who previously had opposed CAFTA, but now will support it.
"The CAFTA agreement [had] a provision in it that violates the farm bill and, frankly, I was worried about the administration invading the jurisdiction of Congress relative to an agriculture issue that is in the jurisdiction of Congress," he said.
Chambliss helped strike a deal with the sugar industry by bringing industry officials together with administration officials eager to win approval of the trade agreement.
That deal would ensure that the sugar industry would not lose its federal subsidies as a result of additional sugar being imported to the United States under CAFTA.
It also protects the politically powerful sugar industry from any sugar imports under the previously approved North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and any other trade agreements the Bush administration negotiates until 2007, when the current farm bill and its price supports for sugar and other crops expires.
Under the deal, the federal government would study whether it is economically feasible to convert sugar to ethanol. A pilot program can also be established to convert some of the imported sugar to ethanol.
While sugar state lawmakers are beginning to sign on to CAFTA, the sugar industry still refuses to embrace the trade agreement, saying that yesterday's deal with the White House provides no long-term stability for sugar producers.
"There is no deal that we have accepted," said Phillip Hayes, spokesman for the American Sugar Alliance. "We're going to continue to encourage every sugar lawmaker to oppose the CAFTA. We think what was proposed is a bad deal. It's a short-term solution to a long-term problem."
However, lawmakers representing sugar-producing states have signed on to support it.
"I would tell my friends [from sugar states] that this is your insurance," said Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who negotiated with the industry and administration.
CAFTA would end most tariffs on goods traded among the United States and the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It also would allow a 50 percent increase in sugar imports into the United States, phased in over 15 years.
Though sugar beet producers and processors in the South and West were the staunchest opponents lining up against CAFTA, U.S. labor groups and environmentalists also oppose the pact, saying its provisions on labor rights and environmental regulations are weak.
But Bush and leaders of the other six countries say CAFTA will boost the economies of all participants and strengthen democracies in Central America.
"We are very happy to see this issue gaining support," said Jose Guillerma Castillo, the ambassador of Guatemala. "This is heading in the right direction."
After the vote, Castillo stood outside the Senate Finance Committee hearing room to share broad smiles with elated CAFTA supporters.
"We're going to win," said William Morley, managing director of MWW Group, which represents companies supporting CAFTA.