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Lawmakers mull short-term trade benefit renewal

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are discussing a one-year extension of expiring trade benefits for over 130 developing countries to allow time for a comprehensive review next year, congressional aides said on Tuesday.

"We're working on getting agreement from everybody to do a year," a Democratic congressional aide told Reuters.

Both the U.S. Generalized Systems of Preferences (GSP) and a separate program for three countries in the Andean region -- Peru, Colombia and Ecuador -- expire on December 31.

The GSP program gives 131 developing countries preferential access to the United States by waiving duties on nearly 3,500 goods. Forty-four of the world's poorest countries receive duty-free access for an additional 1,400 goods.

The program dates to 1974. But in recent years, Congress has approved only one- or two-year extensions.

Some Republican lawmakers would like to scale back benefits for big developing countries such as Brazil and India that are resisting U.S. demands in world trade talks that they open their markets to more imported goods.

The Andean program also has received only short renewals in recent years as Congress thrashed over whether to approve free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia.

Congress eventually approved the pact with Peru, but many Democrats still oppose the Colombian agreement on grounds they want that country to do more to stop violence against trade unionists.

The Andean program dates to 1991 and originally also included Bolivia, but that country was suspended for failing to cooperate with the United States in the war on drugs.

Congress also put Ecuador on notice that it could lose its benefits because of actions taken against foreign investors.

However, President Barack Obama decided in June to continue that country's benefits through the end of this year.

Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has been a driving force behind efforts to reform the U.S. preference programs.

Grassley aides said he opposes any longer than a one-year extension when the programs expire on Dec 31.

They said Grassley was encouraged by talks with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and the two of them have agreed to work together toward comprehensive reform next year.

Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)