May 8, 2006

House to begin work on Oman trade deal

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans announced
plans on Monday to begin work on legislation to enact a free
trade deal with Oman, despite Democratic demands that the Gulf
kingdom first provide stronger assurances it will bring its
labor laws in line with international standards.

The House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee will
meet on Wednesday to consider the agreement, which is governed
by a law barring changes in the pact once the Bush
administration formally submits it to Congress.

The informal work session on Wednesday, and another not yet
scheduled in the Senate Finance Committee, are the only
opportunities lawmakers have to shape the implementing bill for
the U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement.

Congress last year approved a free trade pact with another
Gulf country, Bahrain, by the widest margin of any since the
White House won expedited negotiating power in 2002.

The Bush administration has hoped the Oman agreement would
be approved by an equally impressive margin and wants to avoid
the divisive battle that marked debate on a free trade pact
with Central America that was barely approved in mid-2005.

Seventy-five percent of Oman's private sector work force is
foreign, and Ways and Means Democrats have expressed concern
over issues such as the absence of U.S.-style labor unions that
can be formed without employers' approval.

Omani Commerce and Industry Minister Makboul bin Ali bin
Sultan outlined several actions in a March 26 letter to House
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas that the Omani
government planned by October 31 to bring its labor laws in
line with International Labor Organization standards.

Ways and Means Democrats say Bahrain made far stronger
commitments and they want the same from Oman.

Committee Republicans and the Bush administration both
believe Oman has already made significant labor commitments.

The U.S. Trade Representative's office is "working closely
with both sides of the committee to get broad bipartisan
support," a U.S. trade official said.

U.S. trade negotiators have also resumed efforts to reach a
similar pact with the United Arab Emirates.

The two countries are holding talks this week for the first
time since a congressional furor forced state-owned Dubai Ports
World to give up plans to take over the operations of some U.S.
port facilities.