N.C. GOP not buying trade deal

By: - July 25, 2005 5:28 am

Raleigh News & Observer


U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry is a staunch Bush loyalist. He headed Bush’s college outreach during the 2000 campaign, was a Bush operative during the Florida ballot-counting battles, and served briefly in the Bush administration.

But when President Bush showed up July 15 in McHenry’s home county of Gaston to push for a new trade deal, the freshman congressman was 46 miles away. He was in Lenoir talking to workers at Broyhill Furniture Industries, which plans to lay off more than 1,000 employees next month.

"We have been feeling the pain in the last five to six years," McHenry said. "It’s job loss after job loss. I know the way out is not through more trade agreements."

Despite a strong lobbying campaign by the administration in a strongly pro-Bush state, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, has become politically radioactive in North Carolina, with even strong supporters of the president such as McHenry keeping their distance.

With the House scheduled to vote on CAFTA this week, Bush can count on the vote of only one of North Carolina’s 13 members of Congress — Republican Sue Myrick of Charlotte — to ratify the trade agreement.

The lack of support in the GOP-leaning textile belt, the industrial area that stretches across the Piedmont from Virginia to Alabama, is a major reason the administration is having difficulty collecting enough votes in the House for CAFTA to pass.

CAFTA passed the Senate in a 54-45 vote last month, with both of North Carolina’s senators, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, voting for the measure, which would eliminate tariffs on trade between the United States and six Central American and Caribbean nations and lower other trade barriers.

But North Carolina has been ravaged by plant closings over the past decade, and many voters blame previous trade deals such as NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1993, for the decline.

While textile manufacturers and business leaders are divided over CAFTA, the North Carolina members of Congress say a majority of their constituents at town meetings and in letters and e-mail messages have made their opposition clear.

"This is nothing but a cousin of NAFTA," said U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a Farmville Republican. "We have lost over 200,000 jobs in North Carolina alone — in addition to 2.5 million jobs nationally — since 1993. I sincerely believe that CAFTA will do nothing to help workers in America."

McHenry holds firm

Jones is bit of a maverick Republican. But McHenry is a team player. He has campaigned for Bush’s plan to change Social Security, and he has gone on national television to defend House Majority Leader Tom DeLay from charges of ethics lapses.

But McHenry also represents the most blue-collar district in the country — one that has lost thousands of textile, furniture and other manufacturing jobs. In the last year alone, McHenry said, there have been 4,500 layoffs in the 10th district, and that doesn’t count the impending Broyhill job losses.

That is why McHenry is sticking to the campaign promise he made last year to vote against CAFTA despite pressure in Washington from the White House, the House leadership and influential business groups.

"Neither party nor partisanship nor my president determine what is best for Western North Carolina," said McHenry, 29, who cut his teeth on conservative politics while a student at N.C. State University.

Opposing CAFTA is particularly difficult for the state’s seven Republican House members. Bush carried North Carolina 56 percent to 44 percent in 2004, and the GOP leans philosophically toward free-trade policies.

Opposition bloc

But five of the seven GOP congressmen say they plan to vote against CAFTA: Jones, McHenry, Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk, Charles Taylor of Brevard and Robin Hayes of Concord. (All of the state’s six Democratic congressmen oppose the measure.)

Only Myrick — who two years ago criticized Bush for being "out of touch" on trade issues — is on board. She also was on Air Force One when Bush visited Gaston County.

Myrick said she changed her mind after executives with six textile companies in the district decided to support CAFTA. Myrick said she was also influenced by agricultural officials who think it will help Tar Heel farm exports such as hogs, and because the Bush administration recently stepped up efforts to curb illegal imports.

"It’s a very district-specific bill," Myrick said. "I hope others will see the value of it and will come around."

Coble leans toward ‘no’

The only North Carolina member of Congress who is still officially on the fence — although he is leaning strongly against it — is Republican Howard Coble of Greensboro, who is co-chairman of the House textile caucus.

The White House initially suggested that Bush go to Greensboro, but Coble’s office said that although the congressman would be delighted with a presidential visit, it wouldn’t change his vote and that Coble had a prior commitment in Washington.

Coble, a folksy 74-year-old attorney and 10-term congressman, has been the subject of intense lobbying by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, by GOP national Chairman Ken Mehlman and by the president himself during a meeting with a small group of lawmakers in the White House. But Coble said he told the president that he doubted he could support the measure, even though some of the textile executives in his district support CAFTA.

"I said my mama was a former textile worker," Coble said he told Bush. "She was a machine operator for Blue Bell. When I go into these textile plants and women who are textile workers implore me to vote against CAFTA, that is my mama talking to me. I feel very strongly, emotionally."

Staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or [email protected].

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066