By  on June 28, 2007

WASHINGTON — The House was set to vote late Wednesday on an eight-month extension of a trade preference program that benefits apparel and textile companies doing business in four Andean countries.

The Andean Trade Preference Act, which was facing expiration on Saturday, gives duty free status to apparel made in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, and exported to the U.S.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) had postponed the panel's vote on a two-year extension last week to resolve differences with his counterparts in the Senate.

Top House and Senate lawmakers on trade reached a compromise on the legislation and scaled back the length of the extension to eight months from the two years in the original proposal.

As part of the compromise, the leaders bypassed committee votes and placed the bill on the House "suspension calendar," a procedural step for noncontroversial bills that requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

The House vote was the first trade test for Democrats, who took control of Congress this year, and it was likely to indicate where the Democratic caucus stands on trade.

Rangel and his committee's ranking Republican, Jim McCrery (R., La.), did not explain the reduction in the length of the extension. However, the lawmakers said in a joint statement that they expect "swift action in the House and Senate," and plan to send the bill to President Bush for his signature before the program expires on Saturday.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who had been critical of extending unilateral benefits to Bolivia and Ecuador because of an apparent move away from free market principles, said he would keep a close eye on those governments, but called the bill a "reasonable compromise."

Congress could take up separate, bilateral free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia this year.

Business groups had hoped for a longer extension, but most said they still supported a short-term action to avoid a lapse in the program's benefits.

"We would have preferred a longer term extension but we need something to get us past the expiration on Saturday," said Julia Hughes, senior vice president at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.For the year ended April 30, apparel imports from the Andean region totaled $1.4 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Textile producers, who exported $207 million in yarns and fabrics to the region last year, welcomed the extension, but also had pressed for a longer-term program.

"This is not the best way to encourage business in the region, but it is better than letting the program expire," said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. "If importers had been left with paying enormous duties on goods using U.S. fabrics and yarns, they would have switched to Asia pretty quickly."

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