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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.
While the administration has a “draft” letter signed by the six CAFTA ambassadors saying they are committed to the pocketing change, it is unclear whether it has secured a commitment from Nicaragua on how it will preserve U.S. business. Inglis has said he wants stronger assurances that Congress will approve the changes before considering support for CAFTA.
Thomas distributed a copy of his letter responding to Inglis and said at least two of the three proposed changes — the pocketing change and possibly the Nicaraguan revision — would likely require Congressional approval.
“Notwithstanding [that] all six ambassadors have said they intend to [amend the agreement for pocketing], you still have to sit down formally and agree on the language, then amend it; we then have an opportunity with the amended provision to pass,” Thomas said. “So you can’t take legislative action other than simply stating the intent to do it … and you can’t do that in the time frame between now and when we are going to vote on CAFTA.”
On the labor issue, Thomas said Democrats, particularly Reps. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) and Sander Levin (D., Mich.), never spoke out against labor conditions in the region during the negotiation of the current trade preference program, known as the Caribbean Basin Partnership Act.
Levin, in a statement, said: “It is the Bush administration that is missing an opportunity to negotiate an agreement that effectively shapes globalization and garners broad bipartisan support.”
At a separate news conference, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said he supported doubling U.S. labor and environmental assistance for CAFTA countries to $40 million annually though 2009. The additional funding would help bolster enforcement of existing labor laws in those nations.
Portman also outlined the allocation of $20 million in assistance available to CAFTA countries this year: $7 million will go to modernizing labor justice systems, $7 million to enforce labor laws, $2 million to fight gender discrimination, $3 million to monitor progress and $1 million to support the Environmental Cooperation Agreement.