The Senate passed the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement in one of the closest votes – 54 to 45 – on a free trade agreement since the passage of NAFTA in 1993.

Proponents of DR-CAFTA said the agreement would build new markets and promote democracy in Central America while opponents argued it would cost more Americans their jobs and increase the U.S. trade deficit.

“CAFTA will level the playing field for America’s producers,” said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in a statement commending the Senate for its vote. “By opening these markets on a fair and equitable basis, we could double U.S. agricultural exports to these countries.”

But Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the agreement would continue “the failed trade policies of the past” which he and other senators said have produced record trade deficits and exported American jobs.

“It does nothing to improve the lives of workers in CAFTA countries or in the United States,” he said. “In fact, it asks U.S. workers to compete with workers in countries where there are little or no worker or environmental protections in place and where wages are as low as $2 a day.”

Dorgan said he was also concerned about the precedent this agreement set for the sugar industry. “Sugar workers and producers in the U.S. will be hurt and hurt deeply by this agreement.”

The Senate vote on DR-CAFTA was considered too close to call going into the week of the vote on June 30. But previously reluctant senators like Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, decided to throw their support behind it after receiving assurances that USDA would limit imports of Central American sugar.

“That was a huge concession on the part of the administration,” Chambliss said at a press conference. “They have also agreed to perform a feasibility study for converting U.S. sugar into ethanol.

“When you go back to my original concern, which was that DR-CAFTA violated the 2002 farm bill in regards to sugar, that concern has now been addressed by the administration, and I am ready to support the CAFTA agreement.”

DR-CAFTA must now go to the House floor for a similar up-or-down vote without amendment. Opponents said that if the action in the Senate, traditionally considered more trade agreement-friendly than the House, is any indication, DR-CAFTA faces another close vote.

‘CAFTA is losing momentum and is in serious trouble in the House,” said a spokesman for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “The close vote in the Senate unambiguously demonstrates the unpopularity of NAFTA-like outsourcing trade deals.” (NAFTA passed by a vote of 61 to 38.)

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