Byline: Joyce Barrett

WASHINGTON — A Senate bill to broaden trade benefits to Caribbean countries has been introduced that mirrors a House plan and that includes a controversial provision to give duty-free access to Far Eastern textiles shipped through the island nations.
Introduced Friday by Sen. Bob Graham (D., Fla.), the measure contains the provision, dubbed “tariff preference levels,” that would provide NAFTA-like benefits to fabric not available in the U.S. that is imported under a tariff preference level.
While the Clinton administration has testified before the House Trade Subcommittee that the provision had “little economic rationale” for the Caribbean, Graham said the administration did not object to the language in his bill.
“I have had extensive discussions with [U.S. Trade Representative] Mickey Kantor about my bill and he didn’t object to it,” Graham said in a conference call Friday with reporters to discuss his bill.
Instead, Graham predicted the most controversial portion of his measure would be a provision that gives the 24 nations participating in the Caribbean Basin Initiative six years to accede to the North American Free Trade Agreement or enter into bilateral trade agreements with the U.S.
The administration, Graham said, prefers to see the countries accede to NAFTA in a tiered, gradual approach. Graham said the House likely would act first on its CBI parity plan, sponsored by Trade Subcommittee chairman Phil Crane (R., Ill.). Senate action could come in mid- to late summer, he said.
“I feel a sense of urgency to get something done,” he said. “A differential exists between the Caribbean and Mexico and already, companies and jobs are moving from the Caribbean to Mexico.”
Julia Hughes, chairman of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textile and Apparel, welcomed Graham’s bill and said she hoped the administration would agree to accept it.
“Perhaps the administration will soften and work with Congress on this,” she said, instead of insisting its own bill be considered. “It’s a very good sign that both the House and Senate will be working from the same bill. It should move faster.”
The American Textile Manufacturers Institute favors broadening trade benefits to the Caribbean but opposes the tariff preference levels.
Domestic apparel manufacturers are among the biggest backers of CBI parity. Retailers and importers also are strongly backing the plan. Graham’s bill, like Crane’s, would expand free trade with the Caribbean to cover apparel, petroleum, canned tuna and a minor category of watches.