As a first step in their informal effort, they will request a meeting with the new U.S. trade representative, former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), to discuss ways to get CBC members to support CAFTA.
“We want to make a concerted effort to make sure we get to every member and take no vote for granted, especially in the CBC,” said Kellogg’s Moore, who participated in the meeting by conference call.
CAFTA has languished for months while the Bush administration pressed its Social Security privatization agenda and the Senate briefly held up Portman’s confirmation.
“We’ve had great momentum this week,” Portman said.
But despite Portman’s confirmation and the lobbyists’ push, Democratic opposition remains stiff as Republicans acknowledge they need Democratic support to pass CAFTA.
The level of that support depends on “the number of Republicans we have,” said Portman, who is working closely with House leaders to win passage. But he said he is not whipping, per se. “Our goal would be to have the same number of Republican supporters as we have in the past on free-trade bills.”
However, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared in speech to the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Council on Tuesday that Democrats “will not support the Central American Free Trade Agreement in its current form.”
Some reliably pro-trade Democrats, such as New Democrat Coalition Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher (Calif.) and Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), a business ally on some issues who aspires a party leadership slot, have said they will oppose CAFTA.
Stewart said that the meeting was conceived because there had been inadequate outreach from the White House and House GOP leadership and that the lobbyists wanted to “manage the rift between moderates and leadership” on CAFTA.
“Our group wants to be a bridge between the Democratic leadership and members of the CBC and Blue Dog Democrats,” Stewart added.
Nevertheless, the dozen lobbyists agreed to try to persuade their allies in the CBC to vote for CAFTA.
Citigroup’s Johnson said, “Pelosi does not speak for all of the party. There are some pro-growth Democrats and members of the CBC who are pro-growth.”
Another lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “There are a number of members who want to play ball. They don’t see the benefit in following Pelosi’s leadership. They want to see if playing ball on a big vote gets them in a conversation with President Bush.”
The pro-CAFTA group has identified eight to 10 CBC members as “gettable votes,” including Reps. William Jefferson (La.), Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), Harold Ford (Tenn.), David Scott (Ga.), Elijah Cummings (Md.), Al Wynn (Md.), Lacy Clay (Mo.) and Sanford Bishop (Ga.), all Democrats.
But their optimism could be misplaced, as Jackson and Thompson told The Hill they will not support CAFTA.
“I am not a CAFTA, NAFTA type supporter,” said Jackson. “I am for fair trade, not free trade.”
Thompson said, “I am not going to support it.
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) will follow the lead of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who likely will oppose the bill, one of the participants said.
A Democratic source said party leaders know of only three lawmakers — Reps. Jefferson, Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) — who will vote for CAFTA if it comes to the floor. The source added, “As many as 10 could end up supporting it, but right now we think it’s just those three.”
In a potential boost to CAFTA’s allies, several Latin American leaders were in Washington pressing lawmakers to vote for the agreement.
Portman touted support from the Cotton Council and National Council of Textile Organizations, an association of textile manufacturers.