WASHINGTON — After spending the last month agitating in the South, a coalition of textile, fiber and cotton executives are taking their campaign to limit Chinese imports to the Northeast.

It’s no coincidence the unveiling Wednesday in Manhattan of their Northeastern battle plan coincides with Capitol Hill lawmakers’ returning from their August recess.

The Bush administration is about to start deliberating whether to impose quotas, also called safeguards, on Chinese imports, starting with knit fabrics, robes and bras. The comment period on the domestic textile industry’s request ends Sept. 17 and a decision is due as early as November.

By bringing their cause to New York as Congress reconvenes, the coalition wants “members in the North to immediately start pressuring their congressional representatives to get vocal (with the administration) on these safeguards,” said Augustine Tantillo, who is spearheading the coalition as the chief lobbyist for the American Manufacturers Trade Action Coalition.

After a morning huddle at the New York headquarters of textile giant Milliken & Co., executives from 24 Northeastern mills, ranging from dyers and printers to finishers and weavers, and officials from 16 textile and fiber associations will congregate at Arno Ristorante on West 38th Street for a news conference. Officials from apparel union Unite are also scheduled to attend and announce they are joining the coalition.

“There’s still a very significant textile presence in the Northeast,” said Karl Spilhaus, president of the National Textile Association. “This is not just a Southern issue and we want to make that very clear.”

The textile coalition, just as it did in the South, is rallying its Northeast executives and their employees to undertake voter-registration drives. The idea — a longstanding Washington lobbying strategy — is to encourage existing and new voters to cast ballots for politicians, including presidential candidates, who support textile coalition causes, such as Chinese safeguards.

It’s a strategy that’s chafing retailers and other importers of textiles and apparel, who have enjoyed years of success in Congress and with successive administrations on trade legislation that’s helped to fuel foreign imports into the U.S. far beyond what U.S. exporters sell abroad.

Now, importers are seeing the President’s free-trade agenda being tested. China is being demonized by the textile sector and other financially pinched U.S. industries as a driver behind the slack U.S. economy and loss of 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs over the last three years.Low-cost Chinese imports, according to the textile coalition, pose the biggest threat to ailing U.S. mills when in 2005 global quotas on apparel and textiles are eliminated for all World Trade Organization members.

Chief among textile makers’ and other U.S. manufacturers’ complaints about China is that its currency, the yuan, is artificially depressed to promote exports, which U.S. critics say are also otherwise subsidized by the Chinese government.

So far, the Bush administration has declined to name China as a country that manipulates its currency. However, Treasury Secretary John Snow is scheduled to stop in China this week to discuss the yuan’s exchange rate, among other things, with economic officials there.

The administration also bristles at any notion that it isn’t textile-industry friendly, with officials pointing to a special interagency task force created 1 1/2 years ago to help mills better compete. The task force has worked to pry open some foreign trade barriers to U.S. textile exports and tried to steer developing countries away from apparel and textile production.

Jon Gold, director of international trade policy with the International Mass Retail Association, bemoaned the political pressure facing the administration, as well as members of Congress.

“This comes at a time when we’re going into the 2004 reelection cycle and the issue is picking up some steam,” Gold said. “We’re going to have to stay on top of this and continue to talk [to Congress and the administration] about the benefits of trade to the economy and consumers. We’re in a global economy and people need to realize how interconnected things are.”

Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, called China “the new bugaboo, like Japan was 15 years ago.”

“It’s a very simplistic view that China is the cause of all these economic problems, whether it be loss of manufacturing jobs or whatnot,” Autor said. “We’ve gone through these periods before. They’re difficult. You’ve got to deal with a lot of emotion.”

The textile coalition is also angling to influence negotiations to create a Central America Free Trade Agreement. On the textile industry’s must-have list for the Bush administration is a CAFTA with no allowances for non-Central American or U.S. textiles.It’s difficult to measure how much traction the coalition is gaining in Congress, but it’s clear the textile industry’s woes have caught the attention of Southern representatives and senators, several from the President’s own Republican party, with heavy textile constituencies.

For example, Republican Rep. Cass Ballenger from North Carolina is expected to soon co-sponsor legislation to increase tariffs by 15 to 50 percent on all imported Chinese goods until China allows its currency to float freely, instead of being pegged to the U.S. dollar.

Freshman Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.), who has yet to be tested with a vote on trade legislation but said during her campaign that she supported TPA, is circulating a letter in the Senate to garner support for textile industry demands.

“At stake are over 773,000 American jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel industry alone,” the Dear Colleague letter from Dole reads. “To counter this growing threat, please sign the attached letter to the President urging him to initiate the China special textile safeguard, reject any tariff preference levels permitting use of Chinese or any other non-CAFTA fabric in the Central American Free Trade Agreement and other free trade agreements, and maintain current U.S. textile tariffs in the Doha round of [World Trade Organization] negotiations.”

For Steve Lamar, vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, limiting textile origin under CAFTA would lead to apparel business leaving the region after 2005 and result in a loss of Central American business for U.S. textile mills. Lamar said U.S. textile interests should instead back Southern Republican House lawmaker efforts to have the Bush administration allow investment in Central American apparel production.

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