By Ramsey Cox
Last week, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he opposed passing the bill without improving the way the benefits were paid for. Coburn demanded and got a vote on his proposal to take the $200 million cost of the bill out of areas related to trade, but the Senate rejected that amendment on a 40-58 vote.
As it stands, the bill pays for a three-year extension of trade benefits for African countries by boosting customs user fees over 10 years. Coburn objected to stretching out the pay-for over so many years.
Three Democrats voted for the Coburn amendment — Sens. Jim Webb (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) — but several Republicans voted against it.
The bill also makes technical corrections to the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement, and renews presidential authority to apply import sanctions against Burma.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he had a strong interest in seeing the Burmese sanctions end.
“We’re renewing despite great progress be that’s been made in that country in last year and a half,” McConnell said Wednesday.
The GOP leader said he agrees with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recommendation that President Obama waive the sanctions as a reward to the progress made by the country to become more democratic.
The House passed the same trade package, H.R. 5986, on Thursday by voice vote. Under the legislation, provisions that allow African countries to export textiles and apparel to the United States duty-free using fabric from third countries would be extended through September 2015.
Under current law, those benefits expire this September. The bill would also make South Sudan exports eligible for preferred treatment.
The administration applauded the passage of the package.
“Today’s action in both chambers of Congress means protection for not only the 2,000 Americans whose jobs depend on this legislation, but also for thousands of African workers," said U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk. "President Obama is ready to sign this legislation as soon as it reaches his desk."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he had concerns about the impact of duty-free imports on U.S. textile workers.
“I believe that trade is important … but at the same time I am concerned about retaining the cotton and wool trust funds,” Menendez said on the floor Tuesday. “I’m just making sure our trade is not only free but fair.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) assured Menendez that he and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) would work with him to extend the wool and cotton trust fund, which ensures that U.S. companies don’t have a disincentive for using U.S. grown cotton and wool. Currently, importing cotton from other countries, such as China, is duty-free. Reid used the example of the U.S. Olympic uniforms being made in China to save money as an example of why the current situation is a problem.
“I support the wool and cotton trust funds,” Reid said. “It’s such a shame that our athletes are over there competing in the Olympics are in clothes made in China … I’m happy to work with Sen. Menendez and Chairman Baucus, and we’ll work on this commitment this year.”
That pledge to reinstate the cotton and wool trust funds this year was enough for Menendez to say he would not object to the trade bill.
— this article was updated at 1:10 p.m. to add Kirk's comment.