WASHINGTON — Congress returns from a Memorial Day recess today to begin weighing in on the Central American Free Trade Agreement, possibly among the most dramatic and definitive trade votes in more than a decade.

The debate over the tariff-dropping trade accord with Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic has proponents and opponents claiming momentum is on their side. Supporters argue CAFTA would help balance the surge in Chinese imports by propping up an export market for U.S. textiles. Detractors maintain it would mean more goods made abroad and fewer U.S. jobs.

The Senate Finance Committee is targeting June 14 as the date for a “mock markup” of the implementing legislation that allows lawmakers to make recommendations to the Bush administration. The House Ways and Means Committee said it plans to conduct the same procedural step immediately after the Senate Finance Committee completes its action.

The administration can then send implementing legislation to Congress to allow full House and Senate debate to begin. Some lawmakers have said they would like to move the bill before the monthlong July 4 summer recess.

The textile industry has been one of the key hurdles to CAFTA in the House, but in recent weeks, a coalition of textile groups, led by the National Council of Textile Organizations, has thrown its support behind the pact.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.), who represents a large textile constituency, sent a letter last week to the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation in which she wrote: “I have worked hard on behalf of the textile industry to make sure that their concerns about DR-CAFTA were dealt with by the Bush administration. Many of these outstanding issues have been addressed.”

She noted that U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman has assured her he will seek to modify a provision to require that pocketing and lining fabrics be supplied by the U.S. or the six signatory countries in order to be exported duty free. However, any amendments have to be approved by the countries involved in the deal, and the Latin American leaders have not committed to the proposed change.

Cass Johnson, president of NCTO, said Friday that he plans to travel to Central America to talk to officials about the proposed pocketing and lining change and “hopefully get commitments.” Johnson said David Spooner, special textile negotiator for USTR, is planning to take part in the talks.

This story first appeared in the June 6, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Dole’s letter stirred up some controversy in the textile industry with the claim that the trade accord “enjoys wide, if not universal, support in the textile industry.”

“There is not universal support,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “There are numerous large, medium and small companies that are staunchly opposed to CAFTA and believe it is going to negatively impact business and cost U.S. jobs.”

Meanwhile, business groups have begun their major push in support of the agreement. Erik Autor, senior counsel and vice president of international trade at the National Retail Federation, said the administration “is making limited headway with Democrats, and we still have a long way to go there, but I feel textile and apparel members may be a good source for mining votes.”

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