The results of the last election of 2004 could foretell the first serious defeat for the Bush Administration’s agenda in the new Congress. The election, a December runoff for an open US House seat representing Louisiana’s Cajun country, was supposed to be an easy one for Republican Billy Tauzin III. After all, he was the son of a retiring congressman, who had the support of the entire state and national GOP establishment in a district that had just backed Bush by a comfortable margin. Pitted against Tauzin was Democrat Charlie Melancon, a former legislator without a big name or big-name backers. But Melancon had an issue: He promised to do everything in his power to block Congressional approval of the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Melancon said that while Louisiana may have taken hits from the ten-year-old NAFTA, “CAFTA could be a knockout we may never recover from.” And, he promised, “when I’m in Congress, no one will need a petition to guarantee my vote against trade deals that are bad for Louisiana’s workers.”
Despite a last-minute campaign swing on Tauzin’s behalf by Vice President Dick Cheney, Melancon won. His name has thus been added to the list of certain votes against CAFTA, a scheme to undermine protections for workers, the environment and communities that corporate lobbyists see as barriers to trade between the United States and El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. That’s bad news for the White House, which is aware of the close divide in Congress over trade issues but which desperately wants to get CAFTA approved this year. The Administration signed CAFTA last May, but had to delay the required consideration by Congress because it did not want a trade debate to blow up before the election.
Bush and his aides describe CAFTA as an essential element of their economic and political agenda, and even suggest that extending free trade is a tool for combating terrorism. This passion is not motivated merely by the desire to make it easier for multinational corporations to set up shop in the free-trade zones of San Salvador and Managua–many of them, particularly textile firms, have already done so; CAFTA would simply speed up an established pattern. Rather, what is important to understand about CAFTA is that it is considered a “watershed pact,” meaning that its approval is seen as essential to clearing the way for agreements with other countries throughout the Western Hemisphere and as far away as South Africa and Thailand. Larry Weiss, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of labor, religious and community groups, says that if Congress rejects the agreement “the corporate free-trade agenda will be in deep trouble.” In particular, the sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement, currently being negotiated, could be dealt a severe setback.
Bush’s Congressional allies acknowledge that they are in a tight spot. “CAFTA is still the President’s number-one trade priority. It will be the key trade vote in Congress this year,” Representative Kevin Brady, the Texas Republican who is the Administration’s trade-policy point man in the House, said in early January. Shaken by the Melancon victory, which was noted by House Republicans who represent districts where CAFTA’s implementation could threaten the viability of sugar and textile industries, the Administration wants the agreement approved before Congress debates a Social Security overhaul and tax and tort law reforms. “The window of opportunity right now is open,” a trade official recently told the Washington Times. “With CAFTA, the longer it sits around and the longer forces against it marshal themselves, the more difficult the fight could be later on.”