Senators to meet with Bush about sugar

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana’s U.S. senators want a meeting with President Bush to settle whether his negotiators are offering a weakening of sugar tariffs during trade talks.

Democratic Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu sent President Bush a letter requesting a meeting prior to the next negotiating session of the Central America Free Trade Agreement in December.

The letter mentions the number of jobs that depend on the sugar industry and how weakening the sugar tariff could cripple the domestic sugar industry.

The purpose of the request is to find out exactly where the tariff on imported sugar stands in the trade talks between the United States and five Latin American countries, Breaux said.

The tariff is a fee imposed on imported sugar to help protect U.S. sugar growers. The Bush administration wants to reach agreement on CAFTA early this month. The agreement would then go to Congress, which can ratify or kill it but cannot change it.

Earlier this year, U.S. trade negotiators were ready to sign a similar, but separate, deal with Mexico despite Louisiana’s protests. Those talks fell apart on the Mexican side of the border.

U.S. sugar interests, including Louisiana’s Thibodaux-based American Sugar Cane League, fear a loosening of the tariff in a regional trade deal would flood the domestic market with cheap sugar subsidized by foreign governments.

Breaux said the Louisiana congressional delegation has heard conflicting stories on whether sugar will be part of the deal.

During her successful runoff campaign earlier this month, Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco said she would travel to Washington, D.C., with Louisiana’s agriculture interests to help make their case.

In the midst of sorting out and organizing the transition from Gov. Mike Foster’s administration to her own, Blanco eased up on that pledge.

“I’m going to be working with the association to determine whether or not that’s prudent,” Blanco said.

Charlie Melancon, president of the American Sugar Cane League, has said that sugar producers are willing to talk free trade, but only if all sugar-producing countries have to play by the same rules in protecting or subsidizing their sugar industries.

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Making changes on a regional basis, he has argued, allows sugar producers from other countries to use subsidies to undercut U.S. sugar producers.