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CAFTA Vote Is Emerging As a Major Litmus Test

The House is preparing for what has become the most contentious, and likely the tightest, vote yet in this Congress. And if it’s possible to escalate the already intense lobbying campaigns over the Central American Free Trade Agreement, it’s happening right now.

If the rhetoric from both sides is to be believed, then the CAFTA vote — which is slated for later this week — is about more than just a trade agreement. It’s also a stern test of the leadership authority of House Republicans and the Bush administration, as well as a seminal moment for the future of U.S. trade policy.

“Leadership is telling me they’ll do whatever they need to do to get it done,” one senior GOP lobbyist said.

With everything the House Republican leadership has invested in CAFTA, this lobbyist said, a loss would have major ramifications for their stature.

“Let’s face it, nobody likes to lose. And if they do lose, there will be a lot of finger-pointing,” said this senior Republican lobbyist, who is a backer of CAFTA. “Leadership means leading and winning. If you’re not leading and winning, it causes folks to start looking around.”

Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, an anti-CAFTA group, said as long as CAFTA is tied up, “the administration’s hands are largely tied” when it comes to negotiating other similar agreements. And a defeat of CAFTA would transform the trade agenda.

“It would be clear that we’re calling the shots — that we hold the balance of power on trade policy,” Tonelson said.

While all the varied interests that have joined forces to oppose it would most likely go their separate ways if CAFTA were defeated, a loss would still be a setback for the GOP leaders.

A tentative floor schedule sent out Friday indicated just how important the CAFTA vote is for House leadership.

“The Republican Leadership has indicated the CAFTA bill will be scheduled next week and that they will stay into the weekend, if necessary, to complete the bill. This will be an extremely close vote, and Members attendance will be critical. If there is a medical emergency that will prevent a Member’s attendance, please call the Whip’s Office,” said the floor update.

The memo also advises Members that several “LATE NIGHTS are possible [this] week.”

Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is president of the Club for Growth, a CAFTA supporter, said his group continued running advertisements over the weekend, and early this week will be touching base with Members.

“We think we’ve been able to get our message across very well,” Toomey said, adding that he’s cautiously optimistic that the contentious pact will pass. “We think this is very, very important that we not backslide in trade.”

The House Whip operation previously tapped Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock lobbyist Kirsten Chadwick, a former White House legislative affairs staff member, to help lead the outside effort. Chadwick is also in charge of counting Republicans’ votes for the outside, while. Steven Champlin of the Duberstein Group is in charge of counting Democratic votes for the pro-CAFTA side.

The next coalition meeting organized by the House Whip operation is slated for Wednesday at 11 a.m. Some likely participants characterize it as something between a pep rally and a staging ground where lobbyists will receive their marching orders. The leadership will want to make sure that pro-CAFTA lobbyists are standing outside the door during voting, for example.

Trade lobbyists who remember the fight to grant President Bush Trade Promotion Authority recall they pulled off a victory after possibly being down by as many as five votes going into the vote.

But on Tuesday morning, Reps. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), both CAFTA foes, are holding what one Democratic staffer referred to as the “mother of all news conferences” on the West Lawn of the Capitol. The group will include labor, environmental, agriculture, religious and other groups that oppose the trade bill.

In the meantime, House leaders, a GOP lobbyist said, must convince their Members who want to move on to bigger committees or enjoy fundraising support that CAFTA is a must-pass bill.

“There’s a price to be paid here. And there should be, if you cross the leadership, you better damn know there’s going to be a price,” this lobbyist said.

Freshmen like Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), who has indicated his opposition to CAFTA, will not get a pass, said lobbyists familiar with the House GOP leadership. “Nobody gets a pass from the leadership, the White House or the business community,” said one Republican lobbyist. “So far this year, this is the toughest vote,” said the GOP lobbyist, who is confident of victory. “It’s hard to lose tough votes like this.”

While this GOP lobbyist noted that a vote for or against CAFTA will not result in a quid-pro-quo, “if you’ve consistently been difficult on every vote, people do take that into account, of course.”

And for GOP freshmen, several lobbyists said, it’s not the best way to start off their career in the Caucus by turning their backs on their party in their first tough vote.

Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for America Trade and secretariat of the Business Coalition for US-Central American Trade, said that he can’t speak to how the administration or the House GOP leadership will handle wayward Republicans who cast a nay for CAFTA.

But, he said, the Emergency Committee for American Trade will double-weight Members’ votes on CAFTA when it conducts its regular rankings of Members’ votes.

“We believe that it is the signal issue of this session of the Congress. It will help define Members who are strong proponents of trade. I believe the vote on CAFTA will tell us more than virtually any other vote,” he said.

Energizing the grassroots, while always a pivotal advocacy tool, has become ever more important in these final days.

“Most Members of Congress have been lobbied so hard on this, they’re not taking any more meetings,” said one high-tech industry source who is in favor of CAFTA. “They are gauging their constituents.”

Tonelson of the U.S. Business and Industry Council said his message to Republican lawmakers who might fear voting against CAFTA is: “You need to hold yourself accountable to voters, not the Republican leadership.”

And Tonelson’s group makes clear that “if your vote shows that’s not the case, we’re going to make sure your voters know that. This vote on CAFTA is critically important to us, and we’re not going to be in a very forgiving mood.”

Tom Buis, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union, which opposes CAFTA, said that last week the group hosted 25 members in Washington and conducted more than 110 Congressional visits.

Buis points out that his opposition is formidable. The administration and House leaders can throw their support — or opposition — toward Members’ pet legislative projects.

“Obviously, some things don’t even have to be said, they are implied,” Buis said.

When it comes to deals on trade with China and the highway bill, Buis said his side must make sure that Members know they can’t swap their vote and still expect support from the groups that oppose CAFTA.

“There is no doubt that any Member of Congress who trades his vote on CAFTA is a sucker,” Tonelson said.