WASHINGTON - The House voted narrowly late last night to approve the Central America Free Trade Agreement, a pact championed by the White House and Republican leaders as a key tool for promoting economic and political stability in the region.
The vote was 217-215 with all but 15 Democrats opposing it. Twenty-seven Republicans also voted against the agreement, known as CAFTA.
Last night's vote, one of the most contentious this year, came after a day of furious lobbying and dueling news conferences.
The high stakes were obvious: President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent time on Capitol Hill yesterday, trying to persuade wavering Republicans to support the pact.
It would end nearly all trade barriers between the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, immediately or over time.
Already, almost 80 percent of products from Central America enter the U.S. duty-free. The U.S. exports roughly $15 billion a year to the region, ranking the area 13th among American export markets.
Congress can approve or reject trade agreements, but it cannot amend them. The Senate narrowly approved the pact late last month, with both of Maryland's Democratic senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, voting against it.
All day and into the nighttime debate, Republican leaders accused Democrats of playing politics with trade, pointing out that previous agreements - including the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA - had passed with strong bipartisan support.
"We find ourselves today with a Democrat leadership and a Democrat caucus that has browbeaten their members into voting against their principle for political sake," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said after Republicans met with Bush.
"I find that sad. I find that it is sad that the Democrat Party, the party of 'no,' has come to this point: to be a party of politics instead of a party of principle."
Supporters also said that the agreement was important to national security, by strengthening the democratic governments that have signed on to the deal.
Democrats countered that the pact doesn't do enough to push the member nations to improve the conditions of their workers and that the Bush administration had ignored suggestions to make the agreement better.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees trade issues, voted against a trade agreement for the first time since he was elected to Congress in 1987.
Cardin, who represents the Baltimore area and is running for the Senate next year, said the administration could have ensured easy passage of the accord by renegotiating stronger provisions involving worker rights.
But even as the administration cut last-minute side deals to appease the textile and sugar industries, Cardin said, it failed to address provisions for workers.
"We must move the ball forward in protecting labor rights, workers' rights," Cardin said. "That's our responsibility, that should be our priority, and this agreement moves backward."
Other opponents - a group that included some Republicans, especially from states with heavy agricultural and manufacturing interests - said CAFTA is simply a bad deal for American workers.
"CAFTA is NAFTA's ugly cousin," said Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican who said that 200,000 textile workers in his state have lost their jobs since the latter agreement was approved in 1993.
Another North Carolina Republican, Rep. Howard Coble, talked about how his mother had sewn pockets onto overalls in a factory.
"When textile workers, specifically female workers, plead with me to vote against it, I said to the president, 'That's my mama talking to me,"' said Coble. "I can't turn a deaf ear."
Supporters, however, spoke in loftier terms, saying CAFTA is crucial to the strength of a group of regional allies that are struggling to evolve into true democracies.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba, said CAFTA would play a critical role in maintaining the momentum toward a prosperous future.
"America spreads democracy to every corner of the world," said Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. "Open trade and free markets, with democracy, play key roles in sustaining that vision."
In Maryland's House delegation, Democrats Cardin, Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Elijah E. Cummings, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn voted against the agreement.
Republicans Wayne T. Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett supported the measure.