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Senator urges Haiti trade bill, benefit reform

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus threw his weight on Tuesday behind calls for an expansion of U.S. trade benefits to help Haiti rebuild its clothing sector after its devastating earthquake.

"We must lend a hand. We must assist Haiti's earthquake-recovery efforts by creating additional incentives for investment in Haiti's apparel sector," the Montana Democrat said at a hearing to examine how to reform a patchwork of U.S. trade preference programs for developing countries.

Baucus said Congress should tackle both a Haiti trade bill and a broader reform effort this year.

"Let us come together to speed Haiti's earthquake recovery, extend our expiring programs and enact successful preference program reform," Baucus said.

Washington allows developing countries to export thousands of their goods to the United States without paying export duties under six different trade-preference program aimed promoting foreign economic development.

Three of the six programs, including the largest, the Generalized System of Preferences, expire this year, setting the stage for Congress to consider reforms.

Ed Gresser, director of trade policy for the Democratic Leadership Council, said Congress should combined most of the programs into a single, simpler program that also includes countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Pakistan that currently do not qualify for any U.S. trade benefits

The United States has had a stand-alone preference program for Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Many lawmakers favor expanding Haiti's current duty-free access for clothing to aid its economic recovery.

Key staffers on the Senate Finance Committee and the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee have been working to come up with a bi-partisan bill that could win easy congressional approval.

However, any expansion of benefits for Haiti raises concerns among domestic producers as well as poor countries in Africa, which potentially could lose sales to the United States as a result.

Baucus told reporters after the hearing he was unsure how quickly a final Haiti bill could come together, and whether broader preference program reform could be done as part of that legislation or pursued separately.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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