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Sleeping Bag Maker Seeks Trade Deal Exemption

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Politics can make for strange bedfellows, and sometimes it's bedfellows campfire-style.

Take the case of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has found an ally in Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in a fight over trade deals, American jobs and sleeping bags.

Sessions' once-lonesome effort to change a key trade agreement to protect an Alabama sleeping bag manufacturer has bonded two of the Senate's most ideological opposites in a fight that has raised difficult questions about the scope of the GOP's earmark ban.

"It's standing up for American manufacturing," Brown said Wednesday of the fight. "So I want to help Sessions fight on it."

Sessions said that while many of his colleagues may be unhappy that a significant trade law lapsed at the beginning of the year because of his demands, he is content to hold out because he believes he's on the side of fairness.

"We're hemorrhaging jobs," Sessions said. "We've got to make sure we favor our legitimate trade" needs.

"We have to fix it," he added.

The law, known as the Generalized System of Preferences, is designed to allow for duty-free imports of certain goods from developing countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Uruguay and Bangladesh. The goal of the law is to provide economic assistance to the world's poorest countries while creating a source of cheap materials for U.S. companies.

When first enacted, the law included exemptions for certain types of products including textiles to protect U.S. manufacturers. But the law has long been interpreted to not cover sleeping bags.

Over the past 14 months, Sessions has worked in support of calls by Exxel Outdoors, an Alabama manufacturer of low-cost sleeping bags, to change the definition of textiles to cover sleeping bags.

Late last year, lawmakers sought to push through an extension of the GSP, but Sessions refused to agree to a unanimous consent agreement without the sleeping bag change. As a result, the legislation died and the agreement lapsed.

Imports of products covered under the law have dropped sharply since then, and supporters said tens of thousands of U.S. jobs are at stake if Congress does not quickly extend the law. And given the emphasis that voters have put on jobs over the past two years, Sessions' intransigence has rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way.

Democratic and Republican opponents of Sessions' demands say that regardless of the merits of his position, House rules and Senate GOP rules define any legislation providing an individual company with a trade benefit even language that enacts a "fix" to current law as an earmark and therefore dead on arrival.

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