The U.S. House Wednesday took a major step in boosting employment opportunities in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, passing legislation to extend the country's trade preferences.
The bill -- which heads to the Senate and could be signed into law by President Barack Obama as soon as next week -- gives Haiti greater access to the U.S. clothing market for woven and knit fabrics, and extends the life of its current duty-free access well into the next decade.
The move was welcomed by Haitian President Rene Preval, as well as former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, each of whom wrote a letter to key lawmakers last month asking them to support the legislation.
In one case, sources say Bush called a lawmaker who had planned to block the legislation over concerns that it would hurt U.S. jobs.
"This important step responds to the needs of the Haitian people for more tools to lift themselves from poverty, while standing to benefit U.S. consumers," the two former presidents said in a statement Wednesday.
Lawmakers in textile-rich states said the bill could burden the domestic textile industry. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., noted that most of the apparel produced in Haiti is made from yarn from American textile companies, but that the bill would change that and could allow Third World countries to ship "almost-finished" products to Haiti, which in turn could be sent to the United States duty-free.
"In a time when our people need jobs, this bill is giving them away," McHenry said.
"Haiti's earthquake was a true tragedy, but this bill is not just about Haiti. This legislation will let China ship textiles to Haiti, do minimal work there and then turn around and ship them to the U.S. duty-free. It doesn't help Haiti recover and it kills more western North Carolina jobs."
But the former presidents, who visited Haiti recently as part of a private fundraising initiative President Obama asked them to spearhead, called it an important development in paving Haiti's way forward, even as the country grapples with an urgent need for food, water, shelter and sanitation.
The bill's Senate sponsors, Senate Finance committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, hailed the House vote and called for "swift passage" in the Senate.
"Our bill is a common-sense approach that will provide sustainable, long-term assistance to help Haiti get back on its feet by improving U.S. market access for Haitian textiles," Baucus said.
Grassley said the bipartisan legislation "addresses the concerns that have been expressed by the U.S. textile industry with respect to both domestic and regional production of textiles and apparel."
The new legislation is expected to triple Haitian exports into the U.S. clothing market.
Supporters say controls -- such as limits on how much can be exported -- have been put in the measure to protect U.S. jobs and other trade deals in the region that currently assist Central American nations.