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Bush sends Oman trade pact to Congress for vote

Washington Post, USA

Bush sends Oman trade pact to Congress for vote

By Doug Palmer, Reuters

26 June 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill sent by President Bush to Congress on Monday enacting a free trade agreement with the Arab Gulf state of Oman triggered a rebuke from the top Senate Democrat, who said it omitted a provision barring goods made with forced labor.

"This FTA (free trade agreement) enhances our bilateral relationship with a strategic friend and ally in the Middle East region," Bush said in a statement arguing it was strongly in the United States’ national interest to approve the pact.

"Oman is leading the pursuit of social and economic reforms in the region ... and providing better protection for women and workers," Bush said. The pact follows other U.S. agreements with Bahrain and Jordan, bring the United States closer to its goal of creating a Middle East free trade area, Bush said.

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called it "deeply disappointing" Bush did not include a provision which barred goods made with slave or forced labor from benefiting from the pact. The Senate Finance Committee voted to include that provision as part of its nonbinding recommendations for the implementing bill.

"I cannot begin to fathom why President Bush has made this terribly flawed decision to delete an amendment that had bipartisan support that would have blocked goods made with slave labor, forced labor or labor abused by human trafficking," Reid said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said there was no need to include the provision in the bill.

"We have no reason to suspect that goods made with slave labor would be imported from Oman into the United States. Oman has acted in good faith from the start of the free trade agreement process," USTR spokesman Stephen Norton said.

Also, "we have agreed to update lawmakers periodically as Oman takes whatever legislative steps are needed to update and clarify their labor laws," Norton said.

The Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives did not include a similar provision in its recommendations for the implementing bill.

However, key Democrats on that panel have withheld their support for the pact because they want the Omani government to make stronger labor commitments. Several other Democrats are holding a press conference on Tuesday against the pact.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected vote Wednesday on the Oman agreement. House Republicans hope to win approval of the deal before Congress takes its August recess break.