Hispanic Caucus opposes CAFTA in a 14-1 vote

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) voted 14-1 Tuesday night to oppose the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), with four Texans abstaining and one voting against the position.

The four who abstained — Democratic Reps. Charles Gonzalez, Ruben HinojosaRuben Elroy HinojosaTurning the tables to tackle poverty and homelessness in rural America Ethics: Lawmakers didn’t ‘knowingly’ break rules with Azerbaijan gifts Dems heap praise on Pelosi for trade moves MORE, Solomon Ortiz and Silvestre Reyes — are all publicly undecided about the sweeping trade agreement, but pro-CAFTA forces have said they believe they have secured the support of Ortiz and Reyes.
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Rep. Charles Gonzalez was one of four Texas Democrats to abstain.

The CHC will circulate its opposition statement this morning and make it public later in the afternoon, according to several sources.

“We said that, whatever the vote was, we could continue with our positions,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who opposed the caucus stance.

“I abstained because I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Gonzalez said.

“The way I look at it is we’ve taken a position. It’s not a secret,” he said, adding, “We have a good-faith difference” within the caucus.

CHC Chairwoman Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) declined an opportunity to discuss the matter. “No, I don’t want to talk to the press, thank you,” she said.

A CHC spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Not every member of the caucus was present, but Tuesday night’s meeting satisfied the group’s majority quorum requirements.

Cuellar, one of four House Democrats to back CAFTA publicly, has begun to couch his support for the agreement with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic as a way to improve the quality of life for Hispanics in the hemisphere. That echoes an argument made by leaders of the affected countries when they lobbied on the Hill last week for congressional passage.

“We tend to forget about the civil unrest in the 1980s in Central America, so it’s important that we build up democracies,” Cuellar said.

He also cited the need to stem illegal immigration as another reason for supporting CAFTA. “I talk to my border patrol all the time, and the largest increase among aliens is OTMs — other than Mexicans,” he said. “If we want to address immigration, we need to create jobs down there.”

However, official opposition from the 21-member group could blunt Cuellar’s pan-Hispanic argument and opened up a clear divide in the caucus on how free-trade agreements affect both their districts and the native countries of many of their constituents.

Hinojosa’s press secretary, Ciaran Clayton, said: “He’s essentially undecided on the issue. Our district has a lot of cotton and sugar interests as well as some manufacturing, and we’re meeting with all sides.”

Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, meeting with House Republican leaders on how to win passage, as well as with undecided Democratic lawmakers. But opponents, such as Oxfam, were canvassing the Hill as well, and also met with undecided lawmakers.

Some Republicans privately said that the White House was not working hard enough to pass the trade measure.

“A lot more needs to be done to get CAFTA passed on Capitol Hill than an op-ed in The Washington Post,” a GOP leadership aide said, referring to an opinion piece written by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.

“It needs to get done from the top down. It needs to be the president of the United States and his Cabinet pushing for this if they want to get it done,” the aide continued.

The CHC will join the New Democrat Coalition in opposing CAFTA, although a sprinkling of members of that group are supporting the measure.

The Congressional Black Caucus has not taken an official position on CAFTA at this time, a CBC spokesman said.

The four House Democrats publicly supporting CAFTA are Cuellar and Reps. William Jefferson (La.), Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranDems face close polls in must-win Virginia Billionaire Trump donor hires lobbyists to help vets Lawmakers: Chaffetz has a point on housing stipend MORE (Va.) and Norm Dicks (Wash.). Business organizations and Republicans say they will need roughly 20 Democrats to pass the measure.