Anti-CAFTA groups suggest inside deals swayed votes

Two weeks after losing a nail-biting vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), opponents of the new law are singling out individual members for criticism and examination — suggesting that some of them were influenced by campaign contributions and last-minute deals with the administration.

The campaign reflects the deep disappointment felt by CAFTA opponents — who believed they had finally secured the votes to block a trade deal after a series of defeats. It also suggests that a long-standing rift between business and labor groups continues to splinter the Democratic Party’s minority bloc in the House and Senate.

Public Citizen, which opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as well as legislation establishing trade-promotion authority in recent years, has taken its efforts to a new level, issuing a series of pointed releases targeting individual members of Congress since CAFTA’s defeat. The group has compiled multipage documents on Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.). Releases are planned on at least a dozen other members.
The Meeks release notes that New York has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs since NAFTA and that Meeks has received campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies, which backed CAFTA’s protections for intellectual property. The release asks, “Did Meeks get corporate campaign funding pledges for his CAFTA vote?” without answering the question directly. The release sites a Newsday report that Meeks told an International Brotherhood of Teamsters official he had “serious concerns about the bill” before deciding to vote for it.

Meeks, in a telephone interview, bristled at any suggestion that his vote had been influenced by outside pressure. “One of the things that I … am very sensitive about is my integrity,” he said. “That’s an out-and-out lie.”

Meeks noted that he has voted for other trade legislation in Congress and that he met with several presidents of Central American countries during a trip to the region before the vote. He also consulted with former Clinton administration officials about how the deal could create jobs in New York and Central America before making his final decision.

“I have not lost any sleep on this vote,” he said, “because, for me, I believe I did the right thing — not deals, not money.”

Public Citizen has set up what it calls a CAFTA damage report on its website and it plans to track political and economic outcomes in various congressional districts. Its release on Gerlach, who also backed CAFTA, notes that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove attended a Gerlach fundraiser in Pennsylvania days before the vote and quotes a letter from Gerlach expressing doubts about CAFTA, calling it a “pressing” trade concern.

A release on Hayes, who provided a decisive last-minute vote change for trade-promotion authority in 2001, reprints a Hayes quote from The Charlotte Observer saying he was “flat-out, completely, horizontally opposed to CAFTA.”

Since CAFTA passed 217-215, every member who voted for it can be considered the deciding vote. Hayes initially voted no and then opted to support CAFTA after being pressed by House GOP leaders.

In an interview, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said the group would focus on such members as Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). “That’s a guy who had committed at home and to a variety of people in D.C. that he’s against CAFTA,” she said. “What did it take? Was it potential campaign contributions? … It’s just inconceivable, it’s illogical, it’s impossible to understand.”

Other anti-CAFTA groups also are applying pressure. The liberal Campaign for America’s Future last week launched a “search effort” to track down six Democrats who “went missing” when it came time to “stand up” for working people. The Democrats are Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Reps. Henry Cuellar (Texas), Ruben Hinojosa (Texas), Meeks and John Tanner (Tenn.). Cuellar has drawn a primary challenge.

The group claims there has been a “corporate feeding frenzy in Washington.” Business groups have celebrated a series of notable victories this session, winning passage of legislation curtailing class action lawsuits, providing new tax breaks for energy companies, and reforming bankruptcy laws. All three measures passed with some Democratic support.

Some union officials also are warning of possible repercussions of the CAFTA vote. “We’re very disappointed with some of the members who voted for CAFTA,” said Fred McLuckie, legislative director for the Teamsters, which recently disaffiliated with the AFL-CIO. “We’ll certainly be evaluating our support for certain members at the appropriate time.”

However, McLuckie disputed the suggestion that Meeks had told him that he planned to vote against CAFTA.

“We knew he was on the fence, and we were hoping that he would vote our way in the end. He was one of those that didn’t. It was disappointing.”

Asked about members such as Cuellar, who broke early, and Meeks, who decided late, McCluckie responded, “There are some that were a higher degree of disappointment than others.” Of Meeks, he said, “I think he would fit into that category.”