CAFTA passes, with help of Oregon's Greg Walden

One vote would have made the difference. CAFTA, the Dominican Republic Central America Free Trade Agreement, passed the U.S. House of Representatives just after midnight July 28 in a 217-215 vote. The agreement had earlier passed the Senate with the support of all four Democratic senators from Oregon and Washington.

In the House, the vote was largely along party lines, with just 27 of 231 Republicans voting against CAFTA, and just 15 of 202 Democrats voting for it. Aside from Tacoma Democrat Norm Dicks, who voted for CAFTA, all other representatives from Washington and Oregon voted with the majority of their party.

Oregon Republican Greg Walden, Second District, waited until the day before the vote to announce he would be supporting CAFTA. Walden was the target of heavy lobbying by union members and farmers in his district who opposed the trade treaty. But in the end, he sided with the Bush Administration.

Walden predicted CAFTA will lead to increased exports of Oregon agricultural products and “increased economic activity” in industries like high tech and apparel.

Noticeably absent in the pact are worker rights and environmental safety standards.

CAFTA links the United States to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in the same way NAFTA combined the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

The CAFTA vote was much closer than votes on other recent trade treaties.

Normally, representatives have a 15-minute period during which to cast their vote on a bill. But this time, when the 15 minutes were up, CAFTA had failed 180 to 175. So Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom Delay held the vote open another 45 minutes while they and administration officials worked the aisles twisting the arms of reluctant Republicans.

With such a small margin in favor of CAFTA, Walden’s vote could have made the difference, said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt.

“The American people are losing confidence in these so called ‘free-trade’ agreements,” Nesbitt said. “They’re beginning to understand it for what it is: It’s about outsourcing and a race to the bottom.”

The House vote on CAFTA came as the 50th anniversary convention of the national AFL-CIO was winding down in Chicago.

Addressing convention delegates the morning after the vote, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the Democratic lawmakers who supported the deal “sellouts of working men and women.” 

The AFL-CIO was particularly upset that three of the Democrats — Representatives Melissa Bean of Illinois, Jim Matheson of Utah and Dennis Moore of Kansas — voted for the legislation to implement CAFTA just a week after they were among the beneficiaries of a labor-assembled fundraiser.

The bash raised $300,000 for Bean, Mathesen, Moore and other “frontline” Democrats, considered to be the most endangered next November. Bean unseated a 36-year Republican incumbent in heavily Republican Chicago northwest suburbs last year, while Mathesen of Salt Lake City and Moore of the Kansas City area are the sole Democrats in their states’ delegations.

Prior to the CAFTA vote, Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, chair of the AFL-CIO’s political committee and drafter of a letter to Democratic leaders about the fundraiser and potential defectors, told Press Associates Union News Service that the first move of the 20 union presidents who signed the letter “would be to see if we legally can get our money back.”

“Beyond that, there will be primary races in several districts” against defecting Democrats, and not just those three, he said.

In their letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) about the defectors on CAFTA, the 20 union presidents declared that “Our work to help elect at-risk members at your urging will not extend to those who vote against us on this issue.”

“Two more Democrats vote against CAFTA and we win,” Schaitberger told PAI. “And to have one member of the Democratic leadership vote for it is outrageous,” he added, referring to Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. 

 But his letter also did not spare Democratic leaders, either. “We are disheartened that a decision was made not to formally engage the whip operation in defeating this bad legislation,” the union leaders said.  Their letter noted the GOP’s “resolute commitment to rewarding their core constituencies on seminal issues ... At times, the Democratic Party fails to recognize its obligation to stand united with its allies when we need you the most.”

“We are going to stand on principle and not give a pass on this vote to those who should have been with us,” he told PAI.

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