House votes to extend trade benefit programs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously on Monday to approve a one-year extension of trade benefits for Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia that expire at the end of the year.
The House bill also would extend a much broader trade benefits program, known as the Generalized System of Preferences, through the end of 2009. The program provides duty-free treatment for more than 4,000 goods from 144 developing countries, including 43 least-developed countries.
"It is now up to the U.S. Senate to act immediately so that these benefits remain in place," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, said.
The Bush administration also urged the Senate to quickly approve the legislation, which it said in the case of Colombia and Peru was needed to provide a bridge until free trade agreements with those pacts are implemented.
Lawmakers approved the Peru agreement last year, but the pact locking in Peru's duty-free access to the U.S. market under the 17-year-old Andean trade preferences program has not yet gone into force.
Congress has shrugged off White House pressure and balked at approving the Colombia agreement until that country makes more progress in stopping murders of trade unionists.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush began steps last week to suspend trade preferences for Bolivia because of what U.S. officials described as that country's poor cooperation with the United States in fighting drug trafficking.
The House bill would not stop that suspension process if it became law but would allow Bolivia to again qualify for the trade benefits if its cooperation improves.
The House vote came as lawmakers are scrambling to finish their work for the year and only noncontroversial bills are likely to make it to the Senate floor for a vote.
Congressional aides said there is broad support in the Senate for renewing the long-standing programs.
However, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has been a critic of the benefit programs and could block quick action on the bill.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)