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House GOP Put Off Trade Bill

June 20, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ House Republican leaders scrapped plans to debate a controversial trade measure Thursday after textile-state lawmakers charged that a powerful committee chairman had blindsided them with portions of the bill.

``The difficulty we’ve had is really with Chairman Thomas listening here,″ said Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., referring to Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

``We’re going to have to have more cooperation from Chairman Thomas,″ he added.

Thomas’ office had no immediate comment.

DeMint made his remarks after House leaders, flinching in the face of likely defeat, deferred plans to seek a vote on legislation giving President Bush authority to negotiate global trade deals subject to a yes-or-not vote.

A similar bill cleared the House last December by a one-vote margin. The Senate passed its version of the legislation this spring by a more comfortable margin of 66-30, after adding millions of dollars in assistance to workers laid off as the result of imports.

Thomas said passage of the legislation a second time was necessary to strengthen his hand in compromise talks with the Senate.

At his behest, GOP leaders sought to bring the measure to the floor under an unprecedented procedure that denied Democrats many of the parliamentary protections the minority is customarily given.

That further solidified Democratic opposition, so much so that the GOP was unable to count on all of the 21 Democrats who voted for the legislation in December.

In addition, DeMint said that Thomas, in inserting a textile-related provision that had cleared the House previously, changed the text in significant ways.

``The thing that really concerns me is that instead of working with those who helped pass (the trade bill) Bill Thomas has kept us in the dark,″ DeMint added in a telephone interview.

DeMint fended off a primary challenger earlier this year who criticized his stand on trade votes. The lawmaker declined to say how many textile-state lawmakers had expressed concern to the leadership over Thomas’ action, but said the GOP high command ``knew we had enough″ to torpedo the legislation.

The issue involves trade rules for fabric made in the United States, shipped to Caribbean countries to be cut and sewn into clothing, then shipped back for sale.

Over Thomas’ objections, textile state lawmakers had long sought an assurance that this ``wholly formed″ fabric would be woven and dyed, printed and finished in the United States. Only then could it be exported for cutting and sewing and shipped back under preferential trade rules.

The House approved the proposal earlier this year as part of a catch-all spending bill.

But DeMint said the revised version that Thomas placed in the trade bill appeared to open a loophole.

DeMint’s comments were unusually blunt, although the 60-year-old Thomas, a veteran of a quarter-century in Congress, is no stranger to controversy and conflict.

The California Republican frequently displays an acerbic streak in public. Last week, he was challenged on the House floor for using the phrase ``Maloney baloney,″ in referring to Democratic Rep. Jim Maloney of Connecticut.

And on Wednesday, he tangled in a Rules Committee meeting with two Democrats who said they were offended by his handling of the trade issue.

Thomas told reporters the vote was canceled ``on account of the game today,″ a reference to an annual baseball game pitting Republicans against Democrats that was set for the evening.

But Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters earlier in the day that ``if we don’t have the votes to do it we’re not going to bring the bill up.″

Trade legislation frequently sparks intense struggles in the House, dividing both party caucuses. Most Democrats oppose trade bills, reflecting opposition from labor unions that fear the loss of jobs. Many Republicans generally support such legislation, which has the support of business groups. But some Republicans fear the loss of sovereignty under international agreements, while others represent textile workers and others who have been hard-hit by imports.

The bill that was shelved would have granted Bush the authority he wants. Omitted was a Senate-passed provision that sparked a veto threat from administration officials. It would give Congress a chance to amend any trade deal that contemplates weakening existing remedies for unfair trade practices.

In addition, the House measure would have increased annual relief for laid-off workers from $80 million to $110 million, far less than the $300 million in the Senate-passed bill.

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