Business shows gratitude to 'CAFTA 15' Democrats who voted for trade deal

The so-called “CAFTA 15,” House Democrats whose votes, combined with those of most of the Republican majority, narrowly passed the Central America Free Trade Agreement, will reap rewards from business interests tonight at a fundraiser that is stoking the ire of some labor lobbyists.

Co-sponsored by National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) President John Engler, the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) and the Business Roundtable, the fundraiser is being billed as a “thank you” to the 15 Democrats for their politically difficult CAFTA support in the face of pressure from their leadership and outside forces. NAM has been an especially active cheerleader for the 15, customizing press releases for each with a laudatory quote from Engler, who is hosting the event as an individual because NAM does not have a political action committee.

“This is just one of many events we will have in an ongoing battle to really raise consciousness and breadth of support for trade liberalization on Capitol Hill,” an executive involved in the fundraiser said. “We felt like the pro-business side of the equation hadn’t really stepped up and been visible, and this is an effort for that side to step up to counter what labor is doing.”

An EIA spokesman underscored the personal impact of its president, Dave McCurdy, a stalwart free-trade Democrat during his 14 years in the House, on the group’s decision to co-sponsor tonight’s event.

“As Dave McCurdy would like to say, you don’t just build support for trade in the day leading up to a vote, you build support for trade in the next 364 as well,” said Neil Gaffney of EIA.

Fred Nichols, NAM’s top lobbyist, said McCurdy approached Engler about the fundraiser, which was conceived as a response to unions’ fierce opposition to CAFTA.

“Labor made it pretty clear they wanted to burn some bridges,” Nichols said. “We’re trying to build bridges.” He stressed that NAM will continue to help Republicans as well as Democrats who are taking political flak for their CAFTA votes.

The deepening ties between Republican-leaning business groups and the 15 centrist Democrats have been a thorn in the side of the labor community during its recent high-profile internal struggles. Days after the vote, the president of the AFL-CIO’s largest union blasted Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) for her CAFTA support, and a labor union in Bean’s district scrapped plans to name the freshman lawmaker its person of the year.

The new Change to Win Coalition, led by four unions that split from the AFL-CIO in July, has signaled its desire to combat the Republican embrace of the “CAFTA 15” more actively than the labor establishment.

“When we were affiliated with the AFL[-CIO], we led the charge on accountability,” said Chuck Harple, political director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the founding members of Change to Win. “NAM, I know they get upset every time I go to one of their friends. … It could absolutely backfire” on several of the 15, he added, singling out Bean and Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) as two pro-CAFTA Democrats who already have encountered resistance from constituents.

While UNITE HERE, another Change to Win union, maintains its AFL-CIO membership, top lobbyist Patricia Campos said her Illinois affiliates had decided to protest Bean’s CAFTA vote by pulling PAC contributions. Sources close to the AFL-CIO predicted that several presidents from member unions would urge a more strongly coordinated response to the “CAFTA 15” at Friday’s executive-committee meeting.

One potential problem for the AFL-CIO comes from within its own house, as several labor sources questioned an August e-mail bulletin asking federation members to thank pro-CAFTA Democrat Rep. Jim Moran (Va.) for his sponsorship of the Employee Free Choice Act, a noncontroversial labor-related bill.

AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman hinted that union activists might hold independent demonstrations at the fundraiser and said she was not surprised that the 15 Democrats would participate in the event.

“It’s pretty telling, I think, that the business community would be so interested in congratulating these Democrats because CAFTA is definitely a trade deal that’s in the interest of corporations and not in the interests of workers,” Ackerman said.

Unions from both sides of labor’s internal divide wrote to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) before the CAFTA vote, warning of labor’s united opposition to CAFTA and urging swift retaliation against any Democrat who supported the trade agreement, a crucial legislative priority for House GOP leadership. Three of the “CAFTA 15,” including Bean, remain members of the “Frontline” fundraising program for vulnerable House Democrats.

Organizers expect the majority of the 15 to attend tonight’s fundraiser, which will be held at 101 Constitution Avenue, minutes away from the Capitol.

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