By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to help Haiti recover from a devastating earthquake by opening the U.S. market to more clothing from the Caribbean country.
The bill goes to the Senate, which is expected to quickly pass the measure and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The House passed it on a voice vote following a bipartisan deal struck last week after months of negotiation.
The clothing sector accounted for 75 percent of Haiti's export earnings and employed more than 25,000 people before the January 12 earthquake that killed more than 300,000.
"Once the earthquake hit, it become clear the something needed to be done to help Haiti regain the footing that it had worked so hard to attain," said Representative Charles Rangel, who worked with leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee to reach a deal.
The bill makes it more attractive for clothing manufacturers to invest in new facilities in Haiti by extending and expanding the duty-free access to the U.S. clothing market under two separate programs.
However, it is less generous than what two former U.S. presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, had urged lawmakers to approve.
Haiti already has duty-free access for most of the clothes it sells in the United States under the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA) and a separate program for Haiti known as the Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Act (HOPE).
The bill approved by the House on Wednesday extends both programs through September 2020.
It also would increase two separate duty-free quotas for certain Haitian knit and woven clothing products to 200 million square meter equivalents (SMEs), from 70 million currently.
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 two former presidents, who set up the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund for relief efforts at Obama's request, had urged expanding each of the duty-free quotas to 250 million SMEs.
In an April 13 letters to U.S. lawmakers, they said three major Korean clothing manufacturers were interested in investing in Haiti, but were reluctant to do so because the current quotas were too small.
Two major U.S. textile groups, the National Council of Textile Organizations and the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, endorsed the final bill as an "acceptable" compromise given the destruction Haiti has suffered.
But with an eye on protecting their remaining market share in the United States, the groups stressed "this package does not set a precedent for any future trade preference legislation" for other developing countries.
The American Apparel and Footwear Association, which represents importers, said the bill, once it is passed by the Senate and signed by Obama, would help the U.S. apparel and textile industry "rebuild Haiti's apparel sector with a degree of certainty and predictability that has been lacking."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)