Trick or Treaty

An eleventh-hour attempt by the Republican House leadership to save the unpopular Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) trade pact has apparently shifted into overdrive. If rumors abuzz on Capitol Hill are to be believed, members of Congress who seek CAFTA's defeat had best stock up on No-Doz and Red Bull. And if you're an undecided Republican, some hockey pads wouldn't hurt either.

Several sources have told the Prospect that they believe that House GOP leaders are planning to hold a vote on CAFTA at midnight sometime this week, hoping that enough anti-CAFTA members won't stick around for the late-night fete. As CAFTA's opponents currently constitute a majority in the House, the GOP leadership intends to steal a victory by coercing, cajoling, or simply outlasting the CAFTA opponents.

After being stalled for more than a year, CAFTA passed the Senate in a 54-to-45 vote last month. As it stands, about 180 Democrats and 28 to 30 Republicans solidly oppose the deal, which is essentially the extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. That leaves about two dozen or so undecided Republicans who have previously indicated their opposition, but are nonetheless swayable. If we are to believe Arizona Republican Jim Kolbe, who told Washington Trade Daily that the GOP leadership would "twist some Republican arms until they break in a thousand pieces," coercion will be used at least as much as carrots to see this bill through.

For dissenting Republicans who wish to keep their arms (or subcommittee chairmanships), a late-night roll call would provide an excuse to duck out of casting a vote that may be popular at home but would embarrass the leadership. For their part, House Democrats would be forced into a war of attrition as they wait -- and wait, and wait -- for the vote to be called. After all, CAFTA needn't win the support of a majority of Congress to pass, only a majority of those present at the time of a vote once a quorum of 218 members is established.

Signs of this last-minute legislative strategy became apparent on Monday, July 25, when U.S. Trade Secretary Rob Portman -- flanked by three southern Republicans who had formerly opposed the treaty -- called a press conference to announce a side deal on textiles. The congressmen were from textile-producing districts in Alabama and South Carolina; to win their support, Portman hammered out a last-minute deal that would, among other things, exclude Chinese fabric from the pocket linings of trousers produced in CAFTA countries, thereby increasing the share of American cotton in, say, Nicaraguan pants. Aaron Neville would be proud.

To be sure, not all southern Republicans from textile-producing states think with their pants. Some, like North Carolina's Walter Jones, consider themselves answerable to a higher authority and have staked out a principled opposition to the deal. "I came to Washington to do what is right -- from the teachings of my Lord and for the people of Eastern North Carolina," Jones said in a press release. "I think we all want trade with the countries of Central America. But trade will not work unless it's fair -- fair for Central American and fair for American workers. This trade agreement is flawed."

But flawed policy and poorly written bills haven't stopped the GOP leadership from ramming through unpopular legislation in the past. Indeed, if Republican leaders do wait until the wee hours of the morning to call a vote on CAFTA they'd simply be replicating the arm-twisting used to secure the passage of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit by one vote in 2003. Back then, as connoisseurs of Tom DeLay's ethics scandals will recall, the majority leader used an unprecedented three-hour extension to the 15-minute roll-call vote to visit a number of recalcitrant GOP backbenchers and make them offers they wouldn't refuse.

Given that CAFTA's future is not clear, a late-night roll-call vote on CAFTA would present DeLay and company with a similar opportunity. Most of the treaty's Democratic detractors -- particularly in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- have held firm in their opposition and will do so at least until the treaty is amended to include meaningful labor and environmental obligations. Other pro-labor Democrats, like Maine's Michael Michaud, steadfastly oppose CAFTA for fear that it will hasten the flight of local manufacturing jobs.

But as the clock nears 12, the question remains: Can the rest of CAFTA's opponents resist the temptation to fold in the midnight hour?

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.

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