Bush's agenda could live or die with trade agreement

The passage or demise of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will likely be a defining moment of the 109th Congress.

The trade issue’s outcome will show how much influence President Bush holds with the Republican-led Congress at the outset of his second term and could reveal a clear-cut winner in the intense battle between GOP and Democratic leaders in the House over the merits of the controversial trade pact.

Unless a side deal is struck that attracts the support of some members, the floor vote on CAFTA is likely to come down to a few votes. Whichever side wins the showdown will seize political momentum that could have a ripple effect on the rest of the president’s agenda.

CAFTA’s success “is crucial to the success of the Bush administration,” said Howard Wiarda, head of the department of international affairs at the University of Georgia. “Everything on Bush’s agenda, including Social Security and the Supreme Court, hangs on” CAFTA’s passing.

He added, “If CAFTA goes down, that would confirm for the opposition that he’s a lame-duck president.”

Lawmakers return this week amid constant chatter about the looming Supreme Court battle, but for the House the issue of the month is CAFTA — especially after the Senate’s 54-45 vote approving the trade deal June 30.

House Republican leaders regularly criticize the Senate for being a graveyard of bills they pass, but if CAFTA fails they will be the ones labeled scapegoats.

The passage of CAFTA would give Bush’s slow-starting second-term agenda a significant boost. After Bush’s reelection triumph in November, the administration cited reform of the tax system and Social Security as its top priorities. Neither has made much progress, as a commission studying the tax system was recently extended, the prospects of a Social Security bill appear bleak in the Senate and House passage will require extensive education and whipping by leadership.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has touted this year’s passage of bankruptcy and class-action reform. In a speech before the July 4 recess, Hastert noted that Congress is getting closer to passing the much-delayed highway and energy measures.

Still, Bush’s legislative track record this year will largely be viewed by the success, or lack thereof, of Social Security reform.

The House Ways and Means Committee has approved CAFTA but has not yet filed its conference report. Once it does so, the House will have 15 legislative days to pass the bill.

House leaders are cautiously optimistic that they will pass CAFTA this month. A House GOP leadership aide said, “It’s looking better and better each day … but it’s going to be tight.”

Coincidentally, Republicans will be lacking a vote for CAFTA because of Bush’s choice of Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) as the new U.S. trade representative. Portman’s vacated seat will be filled in August.

Democrats say the CAFTA battle would not have emerged if Bush had consulted Congress before signing off on the agreement.

“This fight did not have to be,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

If Democrats defeat CAFTA, the odds of the already-beleaguered Social Security reform effort’s passing in 2005 would decrease dramatically. A CAFTA defeat would also signal a rare victory for the minority in the House.

If Republicans pass CAFTA without significant concessions, they will be able to criticize skeptics who doubted they would pass the trade deal and note the House GOP’s impressive track record on close votes. While passing CAFTA would by no means translate into victory on Social Security, it would give the legislative effort a much-needed boost.

Republicans are considered a slight favorite on CAFTA because they control the floor schedule and can wait until later this month to schedule a roll-call vote on the controversial pact. But the tricky part for GOP leaders is that they will need Democratic votes to pass CAFTA because roughly 20 Republicans from sugar and manufacturing states will reject it.

In 2003, Republicans relied on sparse Democratic support to pass narrowly their Medicare prescription-drug bill. The vote was held open nearly three hours, and the events of that night led to an embarrassing investigation by the House ethics committee.

Only five Democrats are committed to backing CAFTA. However, Republicans and K Street lobbyists said they believe that several more will vote for it when it hits the floor.

Many Republicans have not publicly committed to voting yes on the legislation — including powerful members such as Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Resource Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska).

Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has indicated he will vote against CAFTA. With the potential of high-profile defections, it will be challenging for House leaders to keep rank-and-file members in line.

CAFTA’s passage has long been controversial. Congress opted not to pass it during last year’s election season.

The stakes are high for House Democratic leaders, who were instrumental in making House GOP leaders sweat on the Medicare vote. However, Republicans triumphed because of the defections of 16 Democrats.

There is a chance that Hastert will strike a deal on sugar or China trade matters to sway GOP members and avoid a tense vote on the floor.

Hastert and other House leaders have crafted such compromises on the 2004 corporate tax reform bill as well as this year’s budget measure.

Elise Craig, Lauren Mercer and Tiffany Todd contributed to this report.