By  on June 21, 2007

WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile companies doing business in four Andean countries were left in limbo Wednesday after House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) postponed the panel's vote on a two-year extension of a trade preference program that expires June 30.

Under the initiative, U.S. companies that make apparel in the countries do not pay duties on goods when they are shipped back to the U.S.

Rangel said he needed to discuss "potential problems" concerning the legislation with the Senate Finance Committee, which is the companion tax- and trade-writing panel in the Senate. He declined to elaborate.

However, Rangel said he intends to bring up the bill before the trade program ends. The expiration of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act with Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador has raised concerns among apparel importers that source their production there. For the year ended April 30, apparel imports from the Andean region totaled $1.4 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

The program faces hurdles in Congress. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the ranking Republican on the finance committee, opposes extending benefits for Bolivia and Ecuador, saying they are becoming more nationalist and moving away from free-market principles. In addition, the length of the extension appears to be in dispute, as lawmakers seek to turn up the pressure to pass separate, bilateral free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia. Many Democrats are opposed to giving trade benefits to Colombia because of the country's human rights record and violence directed at union activists.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) supports an extension of the Andean program and "is working…to find the right way to move forward," a spokeswoman said.

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