Lobbyists, GOP hope Portman can create CAFTA momentum

The business community is hoping that the confirmation of former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) as the new U.S. trade representative will renew momentum in Congress to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), according to several lobbyists and congressional aides. The Bush administration’s focus on Social Security, the currency dispute with China, as well as the vacancy at the trade representative’s office have created a political climate in which passing a trade agreement is difficult at best.

The business community is hoping that the confirmation of former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) as the new U.S. trade representative will renew momentum in Congress to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), according to several lobbyists and congressional aides.

The Bush administration’s focus on Social Security, the currency dispute with China, as well as the vacancy at the trade representative’s office have created a political climate in which passing a trade agreement is difficult at best.

CAFTA’s advocates are concerned that if CAFTA fails the prospects of passing future trade deals will remain bleak.

“The importance of this agreement is whether we are going to continue with free trade,” said Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Clay Shaw (R-Fla.).“I’m worried that isolationism is raising its ugly head while the rest of the world moves ahead.”

Meantime, the Business Roundtable, a coalition of CEOs, has retained two well-connected lobbying firms, the Duberstein Group and Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock, to line up support for the agreement.

Fierce, Isakowitz’s Kirsten Chadwick, a former aide in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, is leading vote-counting effort among Republicans. The Duberstein Group’s Steve Champlin is working the Democratic side of the aisle.

On Tuesdays, the coalition meets to discuss the week’s strategy. Last week, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) office held a meeting with pro-CAFTA groups.

The Roundtable also has flown House and Senate aides to Central America on fact-finding tours during the congressional recesses this year.

Pro-CAFTA lobbyists said Portman’s confirmation will help them.
“He will interject new momentum into the process,” said Brigitte Gwyn, the Business Roundtable’s director of international trade.

But CAFTA’s problems appear deeper than the absence of an effective spokesman.

In January, White House officials told House leaders they wanted to pass a Social Security bill before anything else. They have since realized that scenario will not work.

“Part of it is the timing. January was a world of difference. There was much greater momentum at the time,” a former lawmaker turned lobbyist said. “It would be a major lift to try to move CAFTA today. There’s seven weeks to Memorial Day. It would take all that and well after that to get momentum back.”

A lobbyist who helped draft CAFTA as a U.S. trade official said, “There is a real prospect of time slipping by for a vote. [The White House] has to go ahead and seize the day and shore up the votes where they can get them. If you put CAFTA at the end of the line, that’s a terrible mistake.”

Now, House Republican lawmakers are concerned that the White House is not doing the spadework needed to pass a controversial bill, according to lobbyists and aides. With many undecided Republicans, such as Rep. Phil English (Pa.), Blunt has not started whipping.

Before a vote, the House and Senate hold mock markups to give lawmakers a chance to voice their objections. A vote could take place in several weeks when the Bush administration and Congress agree on implementing language.

The politics of sugar is also delaying the bill. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), a potential Senate candidate, is opposed because it could hurt the sugar-beet industry, and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a reliable pro-trade Democrat who is up for reelection in 2008, has remained noncommittal.

Republicans have relied on Baucus to move a prescription-drug bill and tax cuts through the Finance Committee. Without Baucus, GOP aides said, the bill could languish.

Shaw said that “sugar seems to hold” the votes of some members of the Florida congressional delegation.

Finally, China’s policy of pegging its currency to the dollar’s value, which has exacerbated the U.S. trade deficit with China, has cost support, especially among Democrats, who will have to deliver 20 to 35 votes for the measure to pass in the House.

And labor groups, which have limited their opposition to previous trade agreements with Australia and Morocco, are pressuring Democrats to oppose CAFTA.

Reliable pro-trade Democrats, such as Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), have said they will not support the agreement. Crowley has supported free-trade agreements with Singapore, Morocco, Jordan, Chile and Australia.

A Democratic aide said there is little incentive for Democratic lawmakers to cooperate with business groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, which work to elect Republicans despite Democrats’ support for free trade.