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Lawmakers agree on trade bill to help Haiti

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. lawmakers said on Wednesday they have reached a bipartisan deal to help Haiti rebuild its earthquake-shattered economy by opening the U.S. market to more Haitian clothing and textiles.

"Today's legislation responds to the clear call to action Americans heard in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti," Democratic U.S. Representative Sander Levin, chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement.

The deal was reached by the top Democrats and Republicans on two key committees in the House and Senate, boosting the bill's chances of passage.

The clothing sector accounted for about 75 percent of Haiti's exports and employed more than 25,000 Haitians before the January 12 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people in the Caribbean nation.

"The Haitian garment sector, Haiti's flagship industry, was making important strides prior to the earthquake and helping the country's economy establish a stable foothold. With this legislation, we will help to get the garment sector and Haiti's economy back on that critical trajectory," said Representative Charles Rangel, the former Ways and Means Committee chairman.

The Obama administration has urged U.S. clothing retailers to source at least 1 percent of their clothing from Haiti.

Haiti is the 17th largest supplier of clothing to the United States. It exported more than $513 million worth of clothing to the United States in 2009, up almost 25 percent from 2008.

Most of the clothing that Haiti sells in the United States comes in duty free under the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA) and a separate program for Haiti known as the Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Act (HOPE).

'COMMON-SENSE APPROACH'

The legislation also would extend both the HOPE and the CBTPA programs through September 2020 to give investors confidence that the benefits will remain on the books long enough to justify spending money to help Haiti rebuild.

"This bill is a common-sense approach with support from both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate, and I urge my colleagues to work with us to quickly pass this legislation," Democratic Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said.

The bill was crafted to address "the concerns that have been expressed by the U.S. textile industry with respect to both domestic and regional production of textiles and apparel," Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said.

It would give Haiti "meaningful" new access to the U.S. clothing market and would build on earlier U.S. legislation that sped up tax benefits for donations to Haiti, Representative Dave Camp, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said.

The deal struck on Wednesday would increase the amount of certain Haitian knit and woven clothing products that qualify for U.S. duty-free treatment to 200 million square meter equivalents (SMEs), from 70 million currently.

That increase would occur in any year that Haiti ships at least 52 million SMEs of the knit and woven product. However, to provide a buffer for U.S. producers, the bill sets separate "sublimits" of 85 million SMEs for knit clothing and 70 million for woven apparel.

The American Apparel and Footwear Association, which represents major U.S. clothing importers, said it would push for a quick vote in Congress on the trade legislation.

"This bill works to ensure that all facets of the U.S. apparel and textile industry have the opportunity to participate in Haiti's short-term recovery and long-term growth," the group's president, Kevin Burke, said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Will Dunham)

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