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November 3, 1999

Senate Backs Lower Import Tax on Africa and Caribbean Goods


WASHINGTON -- A popular package of trade bills for African and Caribbean nations escaped a procedural thicket in the Senate on Tuesday and advanced toward final approval when the senators voted to limit debate and consider amendments to the far-reaching legislation.

The senators voted 74-23 to end one of a series of filibusters led by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., who fears that African exports will hurt his state's politically powerful textile industry. Organized labor, worried over the impact on jobs in the apparel industry, also opposes the bill.

A final vote on the measure is expected later this week.

The bills would reduce or eliminate duties on a wide range of goods made in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and the Caribbean, mostly those assembled with fabric made in the United States. President Clinton and a large majority in Congress support the measures.

In a sign of the measure's importance to the White House, Clinton issued a statement from Oslo, Norway, where he is taking part in a two-day summit meeting on the Middle East peace talks, calling the vote Tuesday "an important milestone in our effort to build a new economic relationship with sub-Saharan Africa and deepen ties with our Caribbean and Central American neighbors."

Clinton is also keen to take a deal with him to Seattle on Nov. 30, when he is to open a meeting of the world's top trade officials.

Tuesday's action breathes life into a measure that seemed in jeopardy just last Friday, when all 40 Democrats joined together to oppose a Republican effort to cut off debate. That Democratic vote was in protest of a parliamentary move by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the majority leader, to bar Democrats from offering amendments to the bills.

But Lott and the Democratic leader, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, both strong supporters of the bill, agreed to allow trade-related amendments and to consider unrelated amendments, like raising the minimum wage, on a separate bill.

Lott had said last week that if Tuesday's vote failed to end the filibuster -- a process called cloture, which needs 60 votes -- he would pull the measure from the Senate agenda and the trade bills would be dead for the rest of the year.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., who heads the Finance Committee, proclaimed Tuesday's vote a sign of the "strong bipartisan support for the legislation." After last Friday's vote, Roth angrily accused Democrats of "isolationism."

Clinton, his top national security aides and Senate Democrats have emphasized the issue of isolationism since the Senate's rejected a treaty to ban underground nuclear testing three weeks ago.

If the Senate approves a trade package this week, it still must reconcile differences with the House, which approved a bill, for Africa only, by a vote of 234-163 in July.

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