Portman Key to CAFTA?
As part of an increased White House effort to pass the Central American Free Trade Act, newly minted United States Trade Representative Rob Portman has taken on a high-profile role on the issue in recent weeks.
By most accounts, Portman’s connections to Congress and understanding of the institution has aided the administration’s effort to sell the trade measure although, Congressional sources say, it remains an uphill fight.
“Since Ambassador Portman has been confirmed by the Senate he has ramped up the visibility of the CAFTA efforts tenfold,” said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.).
Bonjean added that Portman “understands Republican Members and what they need to see to vote for the measure,” while Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez “understands how this would help the business community.”
Portman’s enhanced role comes amid a heightened desire on the administration’s part to quickly win the day on CAFTA.
At a speech to the Organization of American States earlier this week, President Bush called CAFTA “a signal of the U.S. commitment to democracy and prosperity for our neighbors.”
Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House, said passage of CAFTA is a “top priority” for the president, a sentiment that he has been “sharing publicly and privately with Members.”
On the Hill, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) have named a task force of Members to lobby their colleagues on specific trouble spots on the bill and are hosting a meeting of the pro-CAFTA coalition today.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate visited the White House Wednesday. CAFTA was among the items on the agenda, said knowledgeable sources.
Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is leading opposition to CAFTA in the House, said the White House is pushing to pass the bill before the July recess because “every time we go home for a break, the opposition grows to this trade agreement.”
CAFTA, which would greatly expand U.S. exports to Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, would replace the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which is set to expire in 2008.
Portman, Gutierrez and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns have been tasked by the administration with leading the lobbying effort on Capitol Hill, according to informed GOP sources.
Johanns handles Members with agricultural ties on the issue, while Gutierrez is in charge of outreach to Hispanic Members and Members with strong ties to the manufacturing industry.
As part of that effort, Gutierrez will meet with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus today to advocate for CAFTA. It is one of more than 130 meetings the secretary has held with Members on the issue since April, according to administration officials.
Portman is clearly the White House’s ace in the hole on CAFTA, however, due in large part to his relationships on the Hill — developed during his 12 years of service in the body.
Portman, who has made no secret of his ambition for higher office, could also earn himself major chits in the eyes of the administration by pulling out a win on CAFTA.
Duffy praised Portman for bringing the “perspective of a Member of Congress and the Hill” to the trade representative job, adding: “That is one of the reasons the president chose him.”
Before being tapped by Bush to be trade representative earlier this year, Portman served as Republican leadership chairman in the House and often served as a liaison between his chamber and the White House.
“He has bicameral, bipartisan relationships that are very strong and are already paying dividends in his job,” said one high-level Republican strategist.
Members “listen when he talks,” added an administration official.
Since being officially confirmed in late April, Portman has met with a handful of Democratic Senators including Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) — both of whom have yet to take a position on the bill.
In the House, Portman will speak to the whip task force at the coalition meeting today, an address that follows on the heels of a similar appeal to the GOP Conference several weeks ago.
“Rob is a huge asset to us in the run-up to the CAFTA vote,” said Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor, adding that Portman “understands what a tough vote CAFTA will be and the hard work we have ahead of us.”
CAFTA opponents claim that they are comfortable with their ability to defeat the bill.
“It is clear we are ahead or they would call the vote,” Brown said. “If this agreement passes it will be by a one or two vote margin because that is the number of votes they will buy.”
So far, four House Democrats — Reps. Henry Cuellar (Texas), Norm Dicks (Wash.), William Jefferson (La.) and Jim Moran (Va.) — have announced their support for CAFTA.
Given the increased level of scrutiny concerning the CAFTA vote, Portman is likely to find slow-going in recruiting more Democratic Members to the cause, said one Republican House leadership aide.
“Members on both sides of the aisle have a great deal of respect for Rob Portman but if you have a problem with CAFTA in your district, his popularity won’t be enough,” said the aide.
The Bush White House has shown an ability to carry the day on major House votes in the past, however.
The most high-profile example came in late 2003 when Republican House leaders held a vote on adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare open for more than three hours before securing the necessary votes to pass it 220-215.
Ben Pershing contributed to this report.