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House passes bill to extend trade benefits

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to renew valuable U.S. trade benefits set to expire at the end of the year for Andean nations and about 130 other developing countries.

The Senate has been working on a similar package, but it is unclear whether it will vote on legislation before the Andean Trade Preferences Act, or ATPA, and the much larger Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, expire.

The House bill extends the two programs, which provide U.S. duty-free treatment for thousands of goods, for 18 months.

It provides additional duty suspensions for a number of foreign raw materials and other products used by U.S. manufacturers to make finished goods. Congress passed a similar duty suspension bill earlier this year.

A fourth plank of the bill extends the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps retrain workers who have lost their jobs because of trade competition.

Colombian officials, in particular, are worried that even a temporary expiration of the Andean program would add to the problems the country faces after heavy rains and flooding that drove nearly 2 million people from their homes.

On Monday, the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos estimated damage from the country's worst natural disaster could reach 10 trillion pesos, which is about $5.2 billion.

The Colombian flower industry is a major beneficiary of ATPA, which slashes duties on imports of clothing, vegetables, plastics, aluminum products and other goods from the region to support jobs.

President Barack Obama's administration supports extending both ATPA and GSP and has been working with Congress toward that end, said Nkenge Harmon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.

Congress is unlikely to let the programs lapse permanently, even if it fails to pass an extension by December 31.

But work could be delayed in 2011 because of the time it would take to educate new members on the issue.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)