By and  on July 20, 2005

WASHINGTON — House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas went on the offensive Tuesday, admonishing Democrats for their opposition to the labor provisions in the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Thomas (R., Calif.) confirmed his commitment to quickly push through legislative changes to the accord's textile rule of origin — but only after a CAFTA vote.

During a press briefing, Thomas said that he expects the House vote on the pact late next week. The House vote is considered tight.

"On [trade votes] you never have the votes until you go to the floor and you never have enough votes until the final bell rings," he said.

Opposition to CAFTA is strong among Southern textile state lawmakers, members representing sugar growers and a large bloc of Democrats. Thomas said he plans to introduce legislation addressing China's trading practices, which is widely seen as an effort to attract more votes to pass CAFTA, before the House votes on the accord.

The Bush administration is trying to chip away at the opposition, with textile state lawmakers a key target. Deal-making centers around attempts to firm up three previous pledges the administration had made to the textile industry. Those pledges won the support of Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.) and the National Council of Textile Organizations, but did not appear to swing Southern textile state representatives.

At least five textile state House members, including Reps. Bob Inglis (R., S.C.), J. Gresham Barrett (R., S.C.), Michael Rogers (R., Ala.), Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.) and Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.) are trying to get better assurances about the three proposed changes as a condition for supporting CAFTA.

The promises are a proposed change for pocketing fabric to require that it be made by one of the signatory countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic; a commitment from Nicaragua to preserve some $95 million in existing U.S. business though it is allowed to use fabrics and yarn from outside the U.S. and the region, and a revision on a provision that allows a limited amount of woven, denim and wool apparel made in the CAFTA countries from Mexican and Canadian fabric to qualify for duty-free treatment in the U.S.

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