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Vote Held Open, GOP Prevails on CAFTA

After a tense, hour-long vote and several weeks of intense lobbying on both sides of the issue, the House passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, 217- 215, a few minutes past midnight Thursday morning.

The measure was approved with 15 Democrats voting for it and 27 Republicans voting against, as a handful of lawmakers from both sides held out until the last minute. The long, late-night session reminded Members and aides of the 2003 Medicare vote and the 2001 trade promotion authority vote, both of which followed similar scripts.

“It was right up there with those votes,” said a senior GOP leadership aide, adding that CAFTA wasn’t quite as difficult to pass as Medicare but was “right up there with TPA.”

Just as they did after those votes, Democrats decried the tactics Republicans used to garner their victory.

“That’s just what we predicted,” Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said shortly after the vote ended, criticizing what he called the GOP’s “middle-of-the-night, sleazy tactics” and lamenting the pressure placed by the Republican leadership on its Members who were inclined to vote no.

As was the case with the trade promotion authority measure, Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) was again the Member who assented to the leadership’s lobbying and cast the pivotal vote on CAFTA, switching from no to yes at the last minute and paving the way to passage.

After the vote had already been held open for more than a half-hour, the tally reached 214-211 and remained stuck there for several minutes. With two Members absent — GOP Reps. Jo Ann Davis (Va.) and Charles Taylor (N.C.) — and ex-Rep. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) seat still vacant, the bill only needed 217 votes to pass instead of the usual 218.

At that point, seven lawmakers had yet to cast a vote: Republican Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Steve LaTourette (Ohio), Michael Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Bobby Jindal (La.), Charles Boustany (La.) and Rob Simmons (Conn.) as well as Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan (Mass.).

Eventually, Hayes came forward to switch his vote, prompting Fitzpatrick and LaTourette to quickly deliver the final two “ayes” needed for passage, as leadership sources said they had pledged to do. Capito, Simmons, Boustany, Jindal and Meehan ended up voting no.

Similarly, on TPA, leaders had been forced to ask a teary-eyed Hayes to switch his vote after they were unable to persuade other Members to change theirs.

On CAFTA, Hayes’ switch came only after GOP leaders put the full-court press on Capito, who is considering a Senate bid in 2006. At various points the West Virginian was surrounded on the floor by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on trade.

Leaders also did their best to persuade Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) to change his no vote. His unwillingness to do so prompted grumbling in the Republican ranks, especially when Hayes, who has a much tougher seat to defend than Hunter, consented to switch.

GOP leaders pledged to do whatever was necessary to help Hayes win re-election in 2006, and senior aides privately expressed strong frustration with Hunter, though it is not clear whether anyone will actually seek to punish the Californian.

The late-night vote came after another day of heavy lobbying on the bill, as administration officials and lobbyists swarmed the Capitol to round up enough votes for passage.

During his visit to the Republican Conference meeting Wednesday morning, President Bush put a heavy emphasis on the argument that CAFTA was a national security vote. In addition to encouraging democracy in Central America, Bush argued, some signatories to the trade agreement have troops fighting alongside Americans in the Middle East and thus deserve our economic support.

Vice President Cheney stuck around for more personal lobbying. Cheney camped out in an office off the House floor to meet with lawmakers, staying until around 10 p.m.

At times Wednesday, the House side of the Capitol looked like the White House East. In addition to Bush, Cheney and U.S. Trade Representative Portman, the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce and State all paid visits to lobby Members.

The House GOP leadership also turned up the heat on its lawmakers. Both Democrats and Republicans noticed that the leaders conspicuously waited to file the conference report on the massive transportation bill until after the CAFTA vote, leaving the measure open for last-minute project requests to be inserted.

The floor debate that preceded the vote was heated but generally respectful, as Members on both sides repeated arguments they had been making for several weeks.

Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.), one of the leading Democratic opponents of the bill, said, “Not heeding our repeated warnings, the administration negotiated this CAFTA so it has shattered the bipartisan foundation many of us have tried to build and is needed to tackle the truly tough challenges of international trade and globalization.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that he was normally a supporter of free trade but would oppose CAFTA because it does not protect worker rights or allow sanctions against countries that break labor rules.

“Regrettably, the administration has failed to negotiate an agreement that meets these basic goals,” Hoyer said.

But Republicans argued that CAFTA would improve the economies of both the United States and Central America. They were particularly critical of the minority, whom they accused of voting against a good bill simply to hand Bush a political defeat.

In closing the debate, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said Democrats “have urged protectionism. They have urged fear. They have urged that we not do what is right.”

Thomas added that, by passing CAFTA, the GOP could become the “good neighbor” party.

“We have been in the majority for a decade. It’s time that we mature into a permanent majority,” he said.