WASHINGTON — After weeks of procedural bickering, House and Senate lawmakers launched talks Tuesday over how to shape a controversial and wide-ranging trade bill that’s spiced with textile and apparel import breaks.

However, despite its first meeting being in public, most of the talks are slated to be held behind closed doors. It’s a strategy of the chairman of the negotiating panel, House Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas (R., Calif.), who wants to quickly reconcile major differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation.

The trade package, in part, would renew President Bush’s trade promotion authority to negotiate foreign trade pacts without the threat of Congressional amendments to them. Bush has said TPA is needed to complete talks like those creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas, encompassing nearly all of the Western Hemisphere.

Thomas said he wants negotiators to work quickly enough that an agreement could be reached by Friday. At the latest, his goal is for a final bill to be crafted before lawmakers adjourn next month.

"We have a shot at offering (a final bill) to the House and Senate before we leave," Thomas told reporters. "Without taking that approach, I don’t believe there is any way we can go through the usual (public) conference procedure and have a chance" at reaching a compromise.

There are numerous hurdles facing the so-called conference committee because of the stark differences between the House and Senate trade bills being melded into the package.

Controversies include how the government should pay for health care of workers laid off because of import competition. Another sensitive topic is the Senate bid for the ability to reject the portions of trade bills that alter U.S. laws permitting the retaliation against unfair foreign trade practices.

On the textile and apparel front, both chambers have agreed to drop duties on apparel made from the Andean countries of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, but they differ on whether garments could qualify if they are made of regional fabric, in addition to U.S. textiles, and if regional fabric is used, whether it has to be made of U.S. yarn. In addition, the House wants an increase in apparel-duty breaks for Caribbean Basin and sub-Saharan Africa using regional fabric. The Senate Andean bill doesn’t have these extras.The textile-apparel provisions in the bill could prove worrisome in the overall trade package is passage in the House. Import-liberalizing textile and apparel legislation is a hot-button issue in the re-election campaigns of several House Republicans from textile-producing states.

So contentious is the idea of expanding trade that recent trade bills have passed the House by one vote, a fact that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.), noted at Tuesday’s trade bill meeting. Baucus, named vice chairman of the trade conference committee, urged the panel to reach a compromise that has broad support, which he said "will set a positive tone for future trade agreements."

Possibly helping to score points with House textile lawmakers was that chamber’s expected passage on Tuesday night of a bill that would require U.S. textiles used in duty-free Caribbean Basin apparel to be dyed, printed and finished in the U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) got this job-saving provision in exchange for his vote last year in favor of renewing TPA. That bill passed by one vote. The Senate is expected soon to take up the dyeing, printing and finishing bill, contained in a government spending measure.

Domestic textile and apparel producers, along with importers, are now busy trying to influence the outcome of the trade conference committee.

For example, the American Yarn Spinners Association, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute and the National Cotton Council have forged an alliance. They have proposed a compromise on expanding duty-free trade breaks in the Caribbean Basin and Africa, while extending them to the Andean countries. Their proposal focuses on "regional fabric quotas acceptable to the members of all three associations," with details of annual increases through 2007.

"In addition, the three groups agreed that current U.S. greige fabric being finished in the region should be grandfathered," a proposal that would change some of the terms provided in the DeMint dyeing, printing and finishing bill.

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