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Sessions Continues Blockade of Trade Bill Over Sleeping Bags

Sen. Jeff Sessions on Friday continued to block passage of a key trade law over his demands that the bill include an earmark that would only help an Alabama sleeping-bag company compete with Bangladeshi manufacturers.

On Friday, the Alabama Republican blocked a unanimous consent agreement proposed by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) to pass the trade bill, which also includes training and health care provisions for U.S. workers who have been laid off.

“I’m not going to stand by and allow nations to cheat on their trade agreements and manipulate trade agreements that in effect destroy our industries,” Sessions said on the floor, demanding that his earmark be included in the bill. 

Known as the General Standards of Preference, the bill is in part a reauthorization of a decades-old law first enacted to help the economies of developing nations by allowing the importation of certain goods duty-free. The legislation covers trade with India, Colombia, Thailand and other countries, and it has wide support from Democrats and Republicans, as well as the National Association of Manufacturers and other trade associations.

The bill has been stalled for months because of Sessions’ demand that an earmark be inserted that would exempt Bangladeshi sleeping bags from the list of duty-free imports covered by the law. That language would benefit Exxel Outdoors, a company in Alabama that is the only domestic manufacturer of cheap sleeping bags. The company employees 65 workers in Haleyville, an area that has been hit hard by the economic downturn and has a 18- to 20-percent unemployment rate.

Proponents of the bill including Casey and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have argued reauthorization — which has historically been done by unanimous consent given the bill’s noncontroversial nature — is critical to protecting some 90,000 jobs across the country.

In a floor speech, Brown said he was puzzled by Sessions’ opposition. “I don’t know if they are trying to cut some deal or what reason they would use for blocking it. But forget the politics. … Look at what it does that’s so important,” he said, pointing to some 357,000 laid-off workers that have received assistance under the bill since 2009.

“A ‘no’ vote on this, really does say: ‘Stop. We’re not really interested in helping you.’ … I’m at a loss to understand why anybody would object to this,” he said.

Casey agreed, arguing: “I can’t understand it. Especially when you consider the fact that we have got 15 million Americans out of work.”

But Sessions was unmoved and blocked the legislation, saying: “I do believe in trade. I think it’s best for the world. But I would say to my colleagues we have got to have fair trade. We have got to have just trade. And nations around the world I think have taken advantage of the United States’ overconfidence in our economy, that they can cheat on agreements and manipulate agreements and close down businesses in the United States and somehow we’re just going to pass on by.”

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