By  on August 10, 2007

WASHINGTON — House Ways & Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) said he will make consideration of a free trade agreement with Peru a "top priority" when Congress returns next month, after receiving commitments from Peruvian President Alan Garcia that there will be changes in the country's labor and environmental laws.

Rangel, who met with Garcia in Peru on Monday, and his committee issued statements Wednesday and Thursday to build the case for allowing the trade deal to move forward.

"I was extremely pleased to hear President Garcia express such overwhelming support for the recent changes to the agreement, and I look forward to making the U.S.-Peru FTA a top priority for the committee and Congress" in September, Rangel said in the statement.

Garcia and his government agreed to make "firm commitments to change Peru's legal framework" in several key areas, such as protecting the rights of workers to strike and organize, and including provisions dealing with antiunion discrimination, time-limited contracts and subcontracting, the Ways & Means Committee said.

Rangel's announcement followed a month of strained tensions between Democrats and the Bush administration over four pending trade deals with Peru, Panama, South Korea and Colombia.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, Calif.), Rangel and other Democratic leaders issued a new policy statement in late June that dealt a blow to Bush's trade agenda, saying they would not renew the President's trade promotion authority, which expired June 30, and withdrew support for free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia until they are revised.

The Democrats' new trade policy drew a sharp response from U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who fired off a letter to Pelosi on July 6 accusing the Democrats of considering imposing "unprecedented new preconditions on our trading partners" by requiring the four countries to change their laws as a precursor to Congressional approval of the pending trade pacts.

Schwab stopped short of accusing the Democratic leaders of reneging on another bipartisan labor and environmental trade policy deal the administration agreed to in May, but she urged Congress to honor the commitment. Under that deal, the administration agreed to make changes to the four trade pacts and to incorporate enforceable labor and environmental standards, such as barring child and forced labor and upholding the right to collective bargaining.Democrats had said the deals with Peru and Panama would be considered first because the accords with South Korea and Colombia faced several unresolved issues.

Importers brought in $864.6 million worth of apparel and textiles from Peru for the year ending May 30. U.S. companies receive a duty free advantage when making apparel in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia under a current U.S. trade preference program, but Congress must vote to periodically renew the program. The FTA would make the benefits permanent.

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