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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.

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