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House Vote To Ease Trade Barriers Signals Positive Action on China Bill

By Nick Anderson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

The House passed legislation Thursday easing trade barriers for impoverished nations in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean basin, a vote some advocates cheered as a favorable prelude to congressional action on the pending China trade bill.

The Africa-Caribbean measure, approved on a 309-110 vote, culminated months of negotiations to iron out differences between competing bills passed last year by the House and the Senate.

It is expected to speed through the Senate next week and be signed by President Clinton soon afterward, becoming the first notable trade measure enacted in more than five years.

Free-trade advocates said the bill’s success should help the pending measure to grant China permanent, normal trade ties, an issue the House takes up later this month.

John Czwartacki, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the action on the Africa-Caribbean bill sends a “strong signal” that there are “big majorities in this Congress that are pro-trade ...”

On a day when trade politics dominated Capitol Hill, 10 previously undeclared House lawmakers -- six Democrats and four Republicans -- announced they would support the China trade bill. Two Democrats announced they would oppose it.

The outcome of the China bill remains uncertain. But the 10 endorsements were a sign of growing momentum behind the bid, backed by Clinton, to engage China through expanded trade as the world’s most populous nation prepares to join the World Trade Organization.

Even though the bill on African and Caribbean trade would have a relatively modest economic impact on the United States -- and consequently has drawn far less attention than the China proposal -- it means a great deal to dozens of developing countries that have been clamoring for improved access to U.S. consumers.

Under the bill, 48 nations in sub-Saharan Africa and 25 in the Caribbean and Central America would enjoy greater access to U.S. markets for clothing and other products as part of an attempt to spur economic growth, free-market policies and democratic institutions in those countries.

The bill’s backers say Central American and Caribbean countries would get a trade boost similar to benefits Mexico has enjoyed under the North American Free Trade Agreement. For instance, El Salvador officials estimate the bill could help create 100,000 new apparel industry jobs over the next few years in that country and generate billions of dollars’ worth of new exports.