Reverberations from CAFTA vote are still being felt on Hill

Political reverberations from last Wednesday’s late-night vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) were still being felt on Capitol Hill this week, with heightened scrutiny falling on the 15 House Democrats and 27 House Republicans who crossed party lines on the pivotal trade pact.

For Democrats, the agreement was the most politically charged vote since bankruptcy reform, in which centrist Democrats infuriated progressives by siding with Republicans. This time, Democratic ire fell on those among the 15 who did not face pressure from their districts to back the measure, focusing on such members as secure New York Democrats Greg Meeks and Ed Towns. But Democrats also touted their unity, noting that no earlier trade vote had received less Democratic support.

Republicans grumbled about two panel chairmen, the Administration Committee’s Bob Ney (Ohio) and the Armed Services Committee’s Duncan Hunter (Calif.), whose votes against CAFTA required leaders to find other, more vulnerable members to support it.  

Two lawmakers who did not vote at all on the agreement, Reps. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) and Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), had to explain their apparent absences after the bill’s hour-long consideration, which amounted to a political drama not seen on the House floor since the three-hour Medicare vote in 2003.

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said the House floor resembled the set of “Let’s Make a Deal,” with Republicans seeking to squeeze out the last few votes needed to pass the agreement.

Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) switched his vote from a no to a yes on the floor after having told The Charlotte Observer two days earlier that he was “flat-out, completely, horizontally opposed to CAFTA.”

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade, implied that Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the first Democrat publicly to back CAFTA, may have made a deal with the administration. Rangel recalled a conversation he had had with Cuellar when both attended a meeting at the White House several weeks ago.

“He gave me his personal assurances that if I helped this president [on CAFTA], that this president would be there for me,” Rangel recalled. “He said he knew this from personal experience.”

The day before the CAFTA vote, Rangel predicted fewer than 10 Democrats would back the bill.

Through a spokeswoman, Cuellar denied having made the remark.

“Congressman Cuellar continues to have the utmost respect for Congressman Rangel, but that statement is patently false. We will not dignify the remark with further comment,” the spokeswoman said.

Cuellar actively lobbied other Democrats to back the measure, as did Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who earned a standing ovation from lobbyists and a word of thanks from the Speaker during one of the last business-coalition meetings with House leaders before the vote.

Meeks’s yes vote also triggered scrutiny. Meeks denied having made a deal with the administration.

“Though my heart was with my colleagues, my head and my conscience told me the right vote was for the agreement,” he said Thursday. “Everyone was talking to me, and I made the decision not based on any deals or any promises [but] based on what I thought was right.”

Meeks went on to say talk of a deal was “based on rumor and innuendo” and “who was my predecessor.”

Meeks succeeded former Rep. Floyd Flake (D), who received federal investment in his district after backing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In a telephone interview Monday, Flake said he met with Meeks to discuss CAFTA about three weeks before the vote.

“Our discussion was what kind of reactions I got in supporting NAFTA and my feelings about it. At that point, [Meeks] was leaning toward voting for it,” Flake said. “We talked about getting more money for the district … by whatever means necessary. If you’re going to make the vote, then it ought to pay off for the district. That’s the way I see politics.”

Some liberal blogs have called for punishment for the “CAFTA 15” and have cheered labor unions’ pledge not to support members who backed the trade pact.  

But some Democratic observers said they thought that approach is misguided. “They shouldn’t be upset with the 15 Democrats. It should be ‘Punish the CAFTA 202,” said Dan Maffei, senior policy adviser to Rangel, noting the number of Republicans who voted for the measure. “It was really impressive that there were only 15 [who voted for it]. There was some disappointment with some members, but it was hardly a bad vote for Democrats.”

Unions have directed their ire at three members of the House Democrats’ 10-member Frontline program, Reps. Melissa Bean (Ill.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and Dennis Moore (Kan.), who supported CAFTA.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he hoped unions would see beyond the single CAFTA vote.

“You had seven out of 10 who voted no. For the other three, we’re going to continue to build support. We hope elements of labor will see the totality of their records for working families,” he said.

Meanwhile, business groups have made similar pledges not to support those who voted against CAFTA, leaving them with few Democrats to turn to on future efforts.

“The business community is looking to define who will be the next [former Rep.] Cal Dooley [D-Calif.] … It may be Jim Matheson or someone like him,” said Christopher Wenk, a lobbyist at the National Association of Manufacturers.

Defending his absence from the CAFTA vote rolls, Taylor said he had tried but the House’s electronic voting apparatus did not register his vote.

“Rep. Howard Coble and I voted no together. Due to an error, my no vote did not record on the voting machine,” he said in a statement.

His spokeswoman later said he had inadvertently used his voting card from the previous Congress.

Coble said he had not seen Taylor vote. He ran into Taylor on the floor just after voting.

“I bumped into Taylor and told him I had just voted no. He said, ‘So did I.’ I said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ When you’re on the floor, you may have your arm broken,” Coble recalled. Taylor and Coble watched the rest of the vote on an internal television feed in an office elsewhere in the Capitol.

“We were talking about how there were still guys who hadn’t voted, so there’s no doubt in my mind that he thought he had voted. I didn’t see him insert the card in the machine. … I just believe he voted,” Coble said.

Davis, who opposed CAFTA, had been caught in bad weather on the 80-mile trip back from a canceled appearance before the Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, her spokesman said.