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Textiles in an Election Year: Industry Execs Descend on D.C.

The final round of talks on the Central America Free Trade Agreement starts next week, as the White House searches for détente on the divisive issues.

WASHINGTON — The battle between free trade and protectionism has a reached a fever pitch and might have found a chief mediator.

Industrialist Wilbur Ross is maneuvering to help reach a compromise between importers and the domestic industry over a Central America Free Trade Agreement, which has become emblematic of the Bush administration’s and Congress’s balancing act between championing global trade and protecting jobs in a presidential election year.

Ross, a newcomer to textile politics who is chairman and chief executive officer of W.L. Ross & Co. and ceo of Burlington Industries, has called a meeting in Washington for today at the offices of the Business Roundtable — a high-brow association of leading ceo’s — to bring together corporate executives from some of the leading U.S. apparel, retail and textile companies.

Invited guests include U.S. trade officials and executives from J.C. Penney, Gap, Limited, Wal-Mart, Target, Jockey, Levi’s, Kellwood, Sara Lee, VF Corp., Phillips-Van Heusen, Warnaco, Cone Mills, Dan River, Parkdale Mills, Galey & Lord and Ashboro Elastics, according to sources.

Notably missing from the guest list is textile titan Roger Milliken of Milliken & Co., who has maintained a steadfast no-compromise position to protect what’s left of the U.S. manufacturing base. Lobbyists for the major trade associations are apparently also excluded from today’s meeting.

The final round of CAFTA talks also comes at a time when the Bush White House’s global goal for easing trade barriers and tariffs have been questioned by the European Union and the Chinese. At the same time, the ambitious U.S. bid to create a Free Trade Area of the America’s has been recently pared back, making CAFTA the only potential Bush trade victory in the wings.

Ross, who did not return calls to his New York office Tuesday, recently launched a trade coalition to address a trade policy he claims has unnecessarily cost the U.S. hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, ranging from steel to textiles to high tech industries.

Today’s planned meeting marks Ross’ first solo attempt to address a deeply divided textile and apparel sector grappling with free-trade principles and massive domestic employment losses.
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