CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For weeks, Representative Robin Hayes was colorfully adamant in his opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
''What does CAFTA sound like? NAFTA," said Hayes, a Republican of North Carolina. ''It's not in the best interests of a core constituency I represent. Every time I drive through Kannapolis and I see those empty plants, I know there is no way I could vote for CAFTA."
But an hour into what is normally a 15-minute roll call, and still short the votes needed to avoid handing President Bush an embarrassing defeat, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, told Hayes that he could promise increased GOP attention to the challenges that China poses to the domestic textile industry.
Hayes switched his vote, and the agreement passed, 217-215.
Democrats have vowed to make Hayes's change of heart an issue when he seeks a fifth House term in 2006. He represents a key district for textiles, in a state in which many voters blame the North American Free Trade Agreement for the loss of tens of thousands of well-paid manufacturing jobs in furniture and textiles over the past decade.
''Rarely have we seen a member of Congress so adamantly speak on one side of a position in public, only to support the other side on the floor," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, Bill Burton, said in a statement. ''Call it a flip-flop or a pander or whatever you want -- to most North Carolinians I know, that's what's called simply not telling the truth to your voters."
A descendant of the family that built Cannon Mills, a predecessor to now-defunct
The CAFTA bill was voted days before the two-year anniversary of the demise of Pillowtex, which is based in Kannapolis. The 4,800 jobs lost there amounted to the largest mass layoff in state history.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Hayes said he had voted ''no" on CAFTA late Wednesday night, with the measure apparently headed to a 214-210 defeat. That was when Hastert asked if Hayes was willing to switch.
''They came to me and said, 'Negotiations are open. Put on the table the things that your district and people need, and we'll get them,' " Hayes said.
Hayes said he didn't have a laundry list of demands. But he said he told Hastert he wants the White House to step up enforcement of trade regulations with China and to impose sanctions if China continues flooding the US market with textile imports. That was promised, he said.
''I've got their numbers" if they don't live up to their promises, Hayes added.
Hayes also said he spent Thursday morning calling CAFTA opponents from his district, telling them: ''Give us the things that are your concerns, so we can go forward with these negotiations."
When the next election comes, Hayes won't be without supporters in the textile business. Several big employers in his district have urged Hayes to support the agreement, including the Tuscarora Yarns chairman, Martin Foil Jr., and its president, Peter Hegarty.
Foil said CAFTA requirements that duty-free textiles made in Central America to be woven or knit from US-made yarn will help keep Tuscarora in business.
The agreement also gives Central American nations, which are close to the United States, a chance to compete with China in making apparel and other textiles for the US market.
''Proximity is key," Foil said. ''It takes months sometimes to get goods out of the Chinese."
Hayes was not the only North Carolina Republican voting in favor of the trade accord with Central American countries.
Representative Sue Myrick, a sixth-term congresswoman who represents a safe Republican district in Charlotte, announced her support for the treaty several weeks ago.
Representative Charles Taylor, who represents western North Carolina, had pledged a ''no" vote, but he missed the roll call. Taylor said that he had voted ''no" but that it had not been recorded because his voting card had failed.