Swing Vote on CAFTA Wants Payoff

A North Carolina Republican who played a pivotal role in helping the White House narrowly win approval of a free-trade pact with Central America pressed U.S. trade officials on Friday for an agreement that would restrict textile and clothing imports from China through 2008.

“The agreement must cover products where (U.S. decisions on China import curbs) are pending or have been accepted in the past, but more importantly, where China is having a disruptive impact on our domestic market,” Rep. Robin Hayes said in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

Hayes switched sides during a vote on the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, to help the White House eke out a 217-215 victory early on Thursday.

He said afterward he agreed to vote for the pact only after receiving Bush administration assurances on certain textile issues, including “assurances of renewed efforts to crack down on the main adversary to our domestic industry — China.”

Most of North Carolina’s other representatives voted against CAFTA, which many textile workers fear could cost them their jobs. The Bush administration argues the pact will help the U.S. and Central American textile industries compete better against China and other Asian suppliers.

The Bush administration has restricted imports of billions of dollars worth of clothing from China this year using an anti-surge “safeguard” mechanism Beijing accepted when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

U.S. officials are considering several additional industry requests for import curbs on Chinese textile and clothing products. A decision on some is expected on Monday.

WTO rules allow the United States to impose curbs on China through the end of 2008. U.S. textile groups would like Washington to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Beijing to eliminate the need for them to continually file safeguards.

They also want the pact to be flexible enough to allow them to ask for additional import curbs if imports of certain product line increase unexpectedly.

Earlier this month, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said it was uncertain whether the United States and China would be able to reach a textile trade pact.