WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said textiles and apparel should receive “special consideration,” but stopped short of supporting a Turkish plan to hold separate negotiations for the sector in the World Trade Organization’s Doha trade liberalization talks.

Struggling to compete with foreign producers, the U.S. textile industry hopes separate discussions lead to tariffs higher than those proposed for other industrial goods, as well as additional protections from Chinese and Vietnamese imports.

“We are not in a position to endorse this proposal without further study, but it is an inescapable fact that the textile sector needs special consideration,” said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Lobbyists for U.S. producers praised the statement as supportive of separate negotiations, but the U.S. trade office left itself wiggle room.

“This is simply a frank acknowledgement of the importance of this sector to virtually all WTO members,” said the government spokeswoman. “There are a wide variety of views on this subject. It’s controversial and we’re all going to have to find a solution to the variety of concerns that all WTO members can live with.”

Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said in a statement from Geneva, “The U.S. statement today sends an important message…that the WTO recognize the unique status of the textile sector and treat it separately at the negotiating table.”

On the importing side, Stephen Lamar, senior vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, had a different read. “I don’t think they’ve made any decision that textiles and apparel has to be negotiated differently,” he said. “The U.S. political rhetoric is about ambition and not having a ‘Doha-lite’ and I don’t believe that they’ve abandoned that ambition with respect to textiles.”

Launched in 2001, the Doha round of trade talks has missed several key deadlines and been stymied by agricultural issues. Members of the House Textile Caucus, along with textile lobbying groups, have been pressing the Bush administration for separate textile talks.

The government statement came after a letter sent to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab from 44 House members on Tuesday, urging the administration to endorse a textile sectoral.

This story first appeared in the June 15, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“It’s not a great revelation that the industry needs a separate sectoral but the question is what they [U.S. trade officials] can ultimately support,” said Ed McDonald, chief of staff for Rep. Howard Coble (R., N.C.), co-chairman of the House Textile Caucus.

He acknowledged U.S. negotiators are in a sensitive position.

“They want to be helpful but they have to weigh it against all other considerations,” McDonald said. “Their hearts are in the right place and we hope their minds get there soon, as well.”

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