WASHINGTON — A trade bill with provisions for dropping duties on apparel from Andean countries nudged a bit closer to completion Wednesday, with the House deciding by a one-vote margin to begin negotiations on the measure with the Senate.
The controversial 216-215 vote was reminiscent of a December House vote to renew the President’s trade promotion authority. That measure also slipped by on a one-vote margin and also occurred against a backdrop of discord between Republicans and Democrats over the direction of U.S. trade policy.
The trade package now goes before House-Senate negotiators. It contains the TPA measure, a bill to drop duties on apparel made in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador, provisions to help workers unemployed because of import competition and a renewal of duty-free status for an array of nonapparel goods from poor countries widely sold at mass merchants and department stores, like baskets and candlesticks.
There are stark differences between how the GOP-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate trade packages treat the Andean apparel trade breaks and benefits for unemployed workers and negotiations are expected to be difficult. If a deal is reached, a final package must again be voted on by each chamber.
Julie Hughes, vice president of international trade with the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, expects a compromise bill will be reached.
“Sure there are differences that are major for some elements, but overall, there is a consensus this thing should pass,” Hughes said. “It will be a tough [negotiating] conference, don’t get me wrong.”
Importers and retailers embrace the House version of the bill because the Andean trade breaks are more liberal. The House bill also expands trade breaks for Caribbean Basin countries for knit apparel using locally knitted fabric made of U.S. yarn. African apparel trade breaks using non-U.S. textiles would also be expanded under the House version.
Patricia Campos, the Washington lobbyist for the apparel and textile union UNITE, said Wednesday’s close vote “demonstrates trade is a very divisive issue” in the House. UNITE is opposing the trade bill as a job loser.
The vote to send the trade package to be negotiated with the Senate was an unprecedented parliamentary maneuver forged by House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R., Calif.) Typically, no vote is needed, but Thomas wanted the House to specify in the measure the House negotiating posture in order to strengthen the chamber’s position. Democrats rebelled, claiming Thomas was running roughshod over their views in negotiations. Debate was heated, with members often shouting at each other.
Although the majority of Democrats voted against the bill and a majority of Republicans favored passage, the vote wasn’t strictly along party lines. Three Republican textile-state lawmakers who in December voted for renewing TPA — Reps. Robin Hayes and Cass Ballenger of North Carolina and Jim DeMint of South Carolina — opposed sending the overall trade package to conference. All three oppose the Andean trade breaks.
DeMint had another reason to vote against the package: wording in the bill, he says, undoes a GOP House leadership promise to require U.S. textiles to be dyed, printed and finished in the U.S. if used in apparel produced in the Caribbean and Andean countries that receive U.S. duty breaks. He argues that the measure would create a loophole allowing some post-production treatment in the foreign countries. Thomas contends the wording isn’t a loophole.”