By  on February 17, 2005

WASHINGTON — U.S. trade officials, ratcheting up an aggressive campaign to sell the controversial Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement, downplayed textile industry opposition to the pact, claiming momentum is on their side.

At a press briefing here Wednesday, they also stressed they will not renegotiate the trade deal, despite making such overtures to textile executives in recent weeks.

“We are working actively with textile ceo’s across the spectrum,” said Chris Padilla, assistant USTR for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison, at the briefing. “Most textile companies recognize the benefits of D.R.-CAFTA. There are a couple of vocal companies who have expressed some concerns, but I believe we are going to win the support of the majority of the industry. I think [textile executives] understand that CAFTA can’t be renegotiated…This is the agreement we have on textiles, this is the agreement we have on sugar, this is the agreement we have on labor and this is the agreement we will send to Congress.”

The Bush administration will make a hard push for the trade deal in North Carolina — a state that has lost 61,800 textile and apparel jobs since January 2001— today and Friday. Padilla and David Spooner, special textile negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, will usher five ambassadors from Central America and the Dominican Republic to Charlotte today and Raleigh on Friday.

Jerry Cook, vice president of international trade at Sara Lee Branded Products, and Peter Hegarty, president of Tuscarora Yarns, are among the executives slated to speak at the forums. The goal is to explain the benefits of CAFTA and of free trade in the region and highlight the importance to North Carolina as an export region, trade officials said. Central America and the Dominican Republic combine to be North Carolina’s second-largest export market, primarily because of the heavy concentration of textile mills. In 2004, U.S. textile and apparel exports to the CAFTA countries and the D.R. totaled $4.2 billion, representing 26 percent of the industry’s total exports to the world of $16.25 billion.

Domestic textile and fiber groups, which formed a coalition to fight any allowances for foreign fabric or yarn in the trade pact, were infuriated by the final deal, which contains exceptions or foreign inputs that they claim will take business away from the beleaguered U.S. textile industry and lead to more job losses.

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