WASHINGTON U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk on Wednesday pressed Congress to quickly renew an expiring trade benefit that has nourished the African clothing industry over the past decade, saying it was crucial for the survival of many African producers.
"There are literally millions of lives and jobs that would be impacted if we can't get it resolved quickly," Kirk said in a speech at the Brookings Institution, expressing frustration that the issue has been "caught up in the politics of the moment."
Kirk spoke ahead of an annual forum with sub-Saharan African countries created by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, first passed by Congress in 2000 during the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
"I'm not proud of where we are," Kirk said, noting there is wide support in Congress for renewing the measure, despite the delay. "We are regrettably in an election year and I think some people think partisan politics trump common sense."
The landmark legislation allows eligible countries in sub-Saharan Africa to ship thousands of goods to the United States without paying import duties.
A provision that expires September 30 waives duties on clothing from most AGOA countries, even if the yarn or fabric is made in another country such as China, South Korea or Vietnam.
President Barack Obama's administration had hoped to win renewal of the provision ahead of the annual forum, which takes place on Thursday and Friday at the State Department.
Kirk said the delay was already hurting African producers because clothing importers place their orders months in advance. He said Obama would sign a bill as soon as it reached his desk.
Congressional and industry sources agreed there was wide support for the measure and that the difficulty lay mainly in moving it through the legislative process.
Some blamed the delay on Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, for demanding formal committee action on the bill, instead of simply allowing it to move to the Senate floor for a vote.
The concern with that approach is that the bill could get laden with so many amendments that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives won't take it up.
A Senate Republican aide, speaking on condition he not be identified, said the administration has known for a long time the third country fabric provision was expiring and could have pushed congressional leaders for action earlier.
"We feel pretty optimistic that the bill will get passed. I think this will happen. It's just a question of when and working through the process to get it done," the aide said.
At a separate news conference, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis and Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson turned down the opportunity to blame any member of Congress for the delay.
"We have strong bipartisan support, as Johnnie was saying, for third country fabric. There is a wide recognition among Republicans and Democrats in Congress that AGOA third country fabric is a vital provision," Marantis said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups also weighed in with a letter urging quick renewal of the measure.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Walsh)