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Central America trade deal imperiled

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It took less than three months for President Bush to push through Congress separate trade deals with Australia, Chile, Morocco and Singapore, but his biggest one — Central America — has been lingering for a year.

Despite another call Tuesday by Bush for Congress to pass it, the people clamoring most for a vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement are not its supporters but opponents confident they can kill it.

“Put it to a vote immediately, or junk it and start over,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who contends the agreement would result in more Americans losing jobs and a bigger trade deficit.

Backers of CAFTA had predicted a May vote on the pact that would eventually eliminate duties on almost all U.S. manufactured and farm products in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. U.S. officials signed the agreement May 28, 2004, but it must be approved by Congress to take effect.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the House’s chief proponent for CAFTA, says the vote will occur in late June or July. “I sense real momentum,” he said, but added that his side isn’t assured of a win until it is ahead by “one vote when they hit the gavel.”

At Bush’s news conference Tuesday, the president again promoted the agreement as “a good deal for American workers and farmers and small businesses.”

“About 80 percent of the products from Central America and the Dominican Republic now enter the United States duty-free,” he said. “CAFTA will level the playing field by making about 80 percent of American exports to those countries duty-free.”

Both the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees now plan to take procedural action in mid-June, something that must happen before floor votes can take place.

In addition to removing trade barriers to a market bigger than that of Russia, India and Indonesia combined, CAFTA proponents say the agreement will foster economic and political stability in Central America and confirm U.S. leadership in larger efforts to open markets worldwide.

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