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Trade Talk, Weak Economy Pervade Material World

The showdown between President Bush and Congress over free trade, and economic and retail woes, cast long shadows at Material World as industry executives sought strategies for uncertain times.

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MIAMI BEACH — The showdown between President Bush and Congress over free trade, and economic and retail woes, cast long shadows at Material World as industry executives sought strategies for uncertain times.

The show, which ended a three-day run Thursday at the convention center here, drew about 400 exhibitors offering the latest innovations in three main categories of the sewn products industry: fabric, sourcing and technology.

Trade was a focus as the House voted to delay a vote on the trade agreement with Colombia despite the objections of the President, who had given lawmakers 90 days to approve or reject it.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, speaking at the preshow American Textiles & Apparel Competitiveness Forum on April 7, stressed the importance of Colombia as an ally in South America, where U.S. policies have come under attack from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The forum was sponsored by Commerce's Office of Textiles & Apparel and the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which has endorsed the Colombia pact.

"The industry lives and breathes free trade, and no matter who's elected President, there's no going back," said Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the AAFA. "Jobs lost in the Fifties and Sixties aren't coming back. It's better to focus on employing and educating people with new skills."

Many of the participants echoed the need to shore up Western Hemisphere trade, but were not optimistic that it would be a domestic priority in the current political and economic climate. The Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, oppose the Colombia agreement. Opponents have cited Colombia's human rights violations and the loss of U.S. jobs. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, supports the deal.

"Trade is under attack," said Tom Travis, managing partner with Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, a Miami law firm specializing in apparel trade issues. "Consumers and workers, who are voters, are in pain, and the pressure to close the borders is the greatest in 20 years."

Travis spoke on a panel of apparel and footwear producers called "The Politics of Trade" at a kickoff breakfast on Tuesday.
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