Video: Free-trade debate

updated 6/24/2005 10:52:10 AM ET 2005-06-24T14:52:10

The White House sent Congress legislation late Thursday in an effort to secure passage of a controversial Central American trade agreement as Bush administration officials offered new concessions to the sugar industry to win support.

Congressional committees approved a mock version of the legislation last week in a tentative show of support. However, lawmakers representing sugar states are wary of the agreement. The House and Senate must vote within 90 legislative days of receiving the measure.

“The agreement will help to level the playing field because about 80 percent of Central America’s imports already enjoy duty-free access to our market,” President Bush wrote in a letter to Congress.

Supporters are faced with an uphill battle in the House, where Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, an opponent, said 90 percent of Democrats are opposed, mainly because of what they perceive as weak protections for labor rights. She said at a news conference Thursday that the agreement would lead to the exploitation of Central American workers at the expense of American workers.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, would cover trade with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. The deal would eliminate, immediately or over a period of time, nearly all tariffs and other trade barriers to U.S. farm and manufactured products sold in the region. It would let the six countries ship more sugar to the United States; U.S. growers view this as damaging to their market.

The administration is offering new concessions to the sugar industry to win support. In meetings this week on Capitol Hill, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns promised to use his authority to keep excess Central American sugar off the U.S. market.

“I can guarantee that sugar is not going to be impacted by the CAFTA agreement during the life of the farm bill,” Johanns told reporters Thursday.

Critics in Congress say both sides have more talking to do. The administration and the industry have offered proposals, but “I’m not sure we’ve been in direct negotiations,” said Republican Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, a sugar beet state.

The Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he has heard positive reaction from some lawmakers.

“But we’re not quite where we need to be,” Chambliss said.

The American Sugar Alliance, a growers’ group, said there is no deal.

“This is literally a fight for our very survival,” Louisiana sugar cane farmer John Gay said. “We cannot afford to lose.”

Under the agreement, the government could pay CAFTA countries not to ship sugar to the U.S.

Johanns already has authority to buy excess sugar from CAFTA countries to use for things other than food, such as sugar-based ethanol fuel. He can also give away other U.S. crops to CAFTA countries that agree not to ship sugar to the United States.

The increase in sugar from CAFTA countries would amount to less than 2 percent of annual sugar production in the U.S., according to the U.S. trade representative.

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