The apparent mixed signals are causing problems for some of Coleman’s constituents. Last week, a group called the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, which opposes CAFTA, bused in hundreds of people to protest outside Coleman’s office in St. Paul. But when the group’s state coordinator, Octavio Ruiz, learned of Coleman’s membership in the anti-CAFTA group, he wasn’t sure at first whether the group was protesting an ally or a foe.
Minnesota sugar-beet growers also are urging Coleman to oppose the CAFTA deal, which is a priority for the White House and congressional leaders.
“If you’re in an anti-CAFTA group, you should be anti, right?” Ruiz asked.
The apparent disconnect between Coleman’s self-described views and his willingness to join a caucus working for the defeat of a major trade deal points to the high-stakes politics that are coming into play on trade this year, even as other issues such as judicial nominations and scandals dominate the daily news cycle.
Coleman is one of a handful of Republicans who are finding themselves caught between their traditional allies — business leaders in their states — and specific agriculture interests or textile producers concerned that they will be harmed by a lowering of trade barriers with other countries.
Other Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), have come out against CAFTA, presenting a significant challenge for the administration and business groups that are pushing for the deal, which involves five Central American nations and the Dominican Republic.
Coleman, in an interview, disavowed the chief goal of the CAFTA Action Caucus: the outright defeat of CAFTA.
“I have concerns with CAFTA,” Coleman said. “I’m not part of a movement. I’m very protective of sugar.” The Red River Valley provides fertile ground for sugar-beet growers in Minnesota and North Dakota.
But the CAFTA Action Caucus, started by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has been explicit in its calls for defeat of the trade deal. The other members are Sens. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho). Dorgan calls the group the “anti-CAFTA caucus.”
In a March 30 “Dear Colleague” letter, Dorgan and Graham wrote, “We hope you will join our bipartisan ‘CAFTA Action Caucus’ — which will head the opposition against a flawed and dangerous trade agreement.” The letter says the agreement would “gut” the nation’s “successful sugar program.”
But Coleman indicated that, by joining the group, he did not sign on to all of its objectives. “I don’t call it a caucus,” Coleman said. “I support trade.” Coleman had some harsh words for the activists outside his office. “They should protest,” he said, “because I support trade, and they don’t, and I think they’re myopic.”
“I’m a pro-trade guy,” he continued. “I just have reservations. I want to see CAFTA passed. I want it to pass. But it’s got to be fixed.”
According to a Coleman spokesman, when Dorgan invited Coleman to join the caucus he did not call it anti-CAFTA. “When we signed on, that’s not what it was called,” he said. “The senator has not taken a position on whether or not he will vote for or against CAFTA.”
Last September, when a coalition of sugar-beet cooperatives staged a press conference in Moorhead, N.D., to protest CAFTA, Dorgan attended. A Coleman spokesman told the Grand Forks Herald that he was unable to attend because he was observing a Jewish holiday.