A proposed free-trade agreement between the United States and six Central American nations enjoys little support in the Minnesota congressional delegation, an Associated Press survey found.
Of the state's five Republicans in Congress, only two said they will support the deal, while three are undecided -- a paltry level of support from a party that traditionally supports free-trade deals. All five Democrats oppose the deal, as do most Democrats in Congress.
The reason for the thin support in Minnesota is that the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement would allow a small increase in imported sugar, which is vociferously opposed by the state's sugar beet industry. Minnesota is the largest producer of sugar beets in the nation.
Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican with close ties to the Bush administration, which negotiated the deal, is among the uncommitted. Coleman said the issue isn't so much the extra imported sugar but the precedent it would set for future free-trade deals.
"The concern is that is a slippery slope," said Coleman.
CAFTA would bring six Latin American countries -- El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic -- into the open U.S. market that now includes Mexico and Canada. Proponents argue that it would help most U.S. farmers by letting them sell their goods in Central America without paying duties.
The state's other senator, Democrat Mark Dayton, plans to vote against the deal.
"I remain deeply concerned about the administration's CAFTA agreement, which would increase the importation of cheap, foreign sugar and pose a major threat to Minnesota's sugar beet farmers and processors," he said.
Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Rochester, is among the undecided. He said that even though he only has a few sugar beet growers in his district, he's concerned about the pact's impact on the state's sugar beet industry.
"If you've got an industry that size, you at least have to pay attention to it," he said.
Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Republican from Watertown who is running for Senate next year, also has not committed either way.
"There's no doubt that CAFTA could be very good for Minnesota agriculture and Minnesota jobs," Kennedy said in a statement. "However, I still have reservations and remain undecided on how I will vote."
He declined an interview request.
Rep. John Kline, R-Burnsville, supports the deal.
"When I look at agriculture in my district -- corn, soybeans, dairy, beef, pork, turkey -- all of those commodities do well with this trade agreement," Kline said. "The only agriculture commodity that does not do better under this agreement is sugar. I am concerned that sugar not be left out there by itself. But I would not oppose CAFTA just over sugar."
The other supporter from Minnesota is Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minnetonka.
"CAFTA is important to Minnesota farmers and Minnesota manufacturers," he said. "It's very important to agriculture in Minnesota to have significantly increased market access for our farmers. Soybean, pork, corn, dairy, wheat, beef -- it's important to all of those areas."
But Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents the Red River Valley, home of the state's sugar beet industry, mocked the argument that the deal would open up markets for Minnesota products.
"It's a joke," he said. "This is free-market ideology run amok. In beef, the only real market (in Central America) is to hotels and expensive restaurants -- and we're pretty much already doing that. Most people down there can't buy anything from us."
Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Chisholm, agreed.
"Central American consumers cannot afford to buy American-made goods today, and CAFTA's inadequate labor provisions ensure they will be unable to afford U.S. products in the near future," he said.
Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minneapolis, said the United States has not negotiated good deals.
"The United States provides the world's greatest market and our trade deficits are far too high compared to the power that we should have in international trade negotiations," he said.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., called CAFTA "a bad deal for Minnesota's workers and farmers. I'm not only opposing CAFTA, I am actively encouraging my congressional colleagues to vote against it."
By Frederic J. Frommer, Associated Press Writer
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)