[Webmaster’s note: The $15 million for the OAS election oversight has been dropped from the appropriations bill.]

WASHINGTON — Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut first visited Haiti as a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. The Democratic senator?s bond to the Caribbean country has grown stronger since then. When the United States returned Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994 after a military coup, Dodd and then-President Bill Clinton flew in the plane that carried Aristide back to his country.

Today, Dodd is one of several lawmakers in Congress who have proposed legislation aimed at improving life in Haiti in response to increasingly desperate conditions in the Western Hemisphere?s poorest country. Eighty percent of Haitians live in abject poverty. One in 12 is HIV positive. The country has the highest infant mortality rate in the Americas and 70 percent unemployment.

A three-year political dispute has made economic conditions there even worse. The nation?s plight has drawn attention from Dodd and lawmakers representing California, Ohio and Florida. They have introduced legislation that would give Haiti money to hold new elections and expand the nation?s textile industry. Other proposals stand less chance of passing. They include measures that would lend Haiti money or set aside federal dollars to help the country improve its infrastructure. And some lawmakers have proposed allowing more Haitian immigrants to become U.S. residents.

“Congress has taken a great deal of interest in Haiti because things are unraveling there,” said Dan Erikson, director of Caribbean programs for Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research group. “A lot of the legislation proposed might be making a political statement but is not necessarily legislation that is going to get passed.”

Some lawmakers behind the measures to benefit Haiti are motivated by compassion. Others represent areas — particularly in South Florida — that are absorbing a steady stream of Haitian refugees and would face an even larger influx if conditions in Haiti don?t improve. In addition to South Florida, some of the largest Haitian immigrant communities in the country are in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

The Congressional Black Caucus also pays a lot of attention to Haiti, the first independent black nation in this hemisphere. Haiti?s economic troubles have deepened due to a political impasse that began with disputed congressional elections in 2000. Aristide and opposition parties have been unable to resolve the dispute. The Organization of American States, which functions as a sort of a United Nations for the Americas, is trying to broker a deal to allow new congressional elections to take place next year. “If there?s a political deal in Haiti, then there will be a lot more interest in moving some of this legislation,” said Dodd, a Democrat who is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has assisted the OAS with the negotiations.

Dodd has proposed giving the OAS up to $15 million to help organize and observe new congressional elections in Haiti.

The Senate approved the money in a preliminary version of a 2004 spending bill and there?s a fair chance House leaders will allow the money to remain in the final version of the bill. U.S. officials have not given aid directly to the Haitian government since the 2000 elections. Instead, they have given money to private groups that work with Haiti. The Inter-American Development Bank, one of the most important international lending agencies for the Americas, was supposed to disburse $146 million in low-interest loans in 2001 to allow Haiti to improve its public health system, education and rural roads and increase its supply of drinking water. But the money still hasn?t been released.

A congressional proposal aimed at helping Haiti boost its flagging apparel industry has support from both Democrats and Republicans and from leaders of key committees. The apparel industry was a significant force in Haiti?s economy until a military takeover deposed Aristide in 1991. “Regardless of one?s perspective on Haiti, there seems to be widespread agreement on the bill,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican who is the legislation?s chief architect in the Senate. He has traveled to Haiti a dozen times and raises money privately for churches and groups that do charity work there. DeWine?s bill, sponsored in the House by GOP Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., who represents South Florida, would expand existing trade preferences for Haiti. Currently, Haiti ships underwear, T-shirts and other items to the United States without paying import duties, as long as the garments are assembled using U.S. fabrics and other materials. Under DeWine?s measure, Haiti would enjoy the same duty-free status if it used fabrics from countries that have free-trade or regional-trade agreements with the United States, including Canada, Mexico, Singapore and Israel. Haiti now pays duties ranging from 11 percent to 30 percent if it uses fabrics from those countries. The proposal faces opposition from U.S. textile companies that are losing ground to a flood of low-priced imports, mostly from China. The U.S. textile and apparel industries employ about 730,000 workers in the United States. About 150,000 of those jobs are in North Carolina. Letting Haiti use fabrics from other countries, many of which trade with China, could open a back door for Chinese materials to illegally enter the United States duty free, said Auggie Tantillo, Washington coordinator of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. Tantillo said the U.S. government would help Haiti more by exercising its authority under international trade rules to limit the growth of Chinese imports. “Who?s going to make an investment in Haiti when they see China doubling its access to the U.S. market every year ?” Tantillo said. Businessmen in Haiti oppose DeWine?s proposal as insufficient. They want duty-free status with no restrictions on the source of their fabrics for a few years, until their industry has re-established itself, said Jean-Edouard Baker, past president of the Haitian Manufacturers Association. “That would serve as an incentive to encourage investment in Haiti,” Baker said.