Two test votes on the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement may provide an indication of how close the final, up-or-down vote on the controversial trade pact may be.

Senate Finance Committee members endorsed DR-CAFTA in a nonbinding 11-9 vote on June 14 after administration officials promised Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and sugar farmers a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to discuss aid for the losses the industry could suffer under the agreement.

The next day the House Ways and Means Committee voted 25-16 to approve legislation implementing DR-CAFTA. The vote was also nonbinding.

Johanns issued a statement praising the Senate Finance Committee and its chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, for supporting what administration officials have said is their No. 1 trade legislative priority this year.

“I commend Chairman Grassley for his leadership on behalf of American agriculture and thank the Finance Committee for supporting this trade agreement, which helps level the playing field for our nation's producers,” he said. “By advancing CAFTA, the committee sent a message that they stand firmly in support of our nation's producers. This demonstrates how American agriculture can succeed when we all work together.”

In a possible sign of votes to come, two Republican Senate Finance Committee members — Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho — voted against the bill while two Democrats — Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon voted for it.

Most of the nation's farm organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the USA Rice Federation and the National Cotton Council, now support DR-CAFTA because it would give U.S. farmers the same duty-free access to the Central American countries that those nations enjoy in trade with the United States.

Earlier, Farm Bureau economists produced a widely publicized study that says passage of DR-CAFTA would produce a $1.5-billion boost in agriculture export sales for U.S. farmers.

But groups like the National Farmers Union continue to criticize the agreement. NFU President Dave Frederickson again predicted the agreement's failure following the nonbinding Finance Committee vote.

“While I'm disappointed that the Finance Committee approved CAFTA, the slim majority by which it won in this generally pro-trade committee is reflective of the lack of support this agreement has in both Congress and the countryside,” he noted. “We cannot keep passing trade agreements that put American agriculture in jeopardy.”

Ambassador Bob Portman, the U.S. Trade Representative, was quoted as saying the Senate Finance Committee vote went better than he had expected. “This was a challenge for us,” said the former Ohio congressman. “This was the first successful step in a very long process.”

Portman's promise that USDA would try to help offset sugar interest losses due to CAFTA was another indication of the power of sugar farmers in Washington, according to observers.

Wyoming's Thomas said he would vote against DR-CAFTA if the sugar industry was unhappy with whatever compromise could be worked out with Secretary Johanns.

While sugar produced most of the fireworks in the Finance Committee meeting, some manufacturing organizations oppose the agreement, arguing it will cause more job losses in the United States than it will bring in new export sales.

Democratic senators such as John Kerry of Massachusetts and Charles Schumer of New York say its labor and environmental provisions need strengthening. Kerry and Schumer unsuccessfully offered an amendment calling for the same penalties for violating labor laws as for intellectual property rights. It was defeated on a tie vote.

Snowe, whose state's shoe manufacturing companies have lost sales to China and other low-wage countries, said the United States has yet to see “the upside of any trade agreements.”

“How many more jobs are we going to lose?” she asked. “The reluctance now and the resistance is because of our experience with NAFTA. It's breathtaking the number of jobs we've lost, yet nothing has come of the promises to get trade right.”

In the last seven years, according to an article in The New York Times, the United States has lost 3 million manufacturing jobs, leaving the country with the lowest level of manufacturing employment since the end of World War II.

Opponents of DR-CAFTA continued to claim they have the votes to defeat it. “If the vote was held today, we would have about 190 Democrats and 40 Republicans against it,” said Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, at a recent rally on the one-year anniversary of President Bush signing the agreement. “This agreement is not even close.”

House and Senate leaders are expected to schedule votes on the agreement late this month or next.


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