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By Cookie B. Micaller

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands - (September 3, 1998 - Saipan Tribune)--- Washington yesterday lashed out at the Northern Marianas for postponing the resumption of Section 902 consultations, saying the delay impedes resolution to long-standing problems straining CNMI-U.S. ties.

President Bill Clinton's special representative to the bilateral talks, Edward B. Cohen, said in a statement the meeting would have provided a venue to resolve differences on the handling of local immigration, minimum wage and customs associated with the garment industry -- issues that are now the subject of several proposals pending in the U.S. Congress.

"These consultations provide an excellent opportunity to address those issues that have been and continue to be significant irritants to the relationship between the Commonwealth and the federal governments," Cohen said.

"We will not resolve our disagreements if there is an unwillingness to talk about them," he added.

Consultations were to have begun on September 16 on Saipan, but CNMI aborted plans to resume the stalled meeting because of what it claimed as intransigence on the part of Washington to include its suggestions in the talking points.

Lt. Gov. Jesus R. Sablan, local chief negotiator, had told Cohen in a letter handed over by Marianas contingent representative Howard P. Willens that resuming talks under the set agenda put forward by the U.S. would defeat the purpose of the meeting.

On top of the minimum wage, immigration and customs issues, local officials wanted to include waiver of the matching requirement for Covenant funds, military land use, sovereignty over submerged lands, the 200-mile exclusive economic zone and the non-voting delegate status in Congress in the scope of discussion.

But Cohen denied the insinuation of his CNMI counterpart, saying "That simply is not case. Certainly, as some in the CNMI have suggested, many issues may be resolvable by working outside the 902 process, directly with the specific responsible federal agency. But the Covenant envisions that issues fundamental to our relationship be addressed in the context of Section 902," Cohen explained.

Despite expressing disappointment over the commonwealth's decision to call off the talks, Cohen said he is willing to meet with local representatives to resume discussions.

The postponement of the consultation was the second since the new administration came into power in January. Representatives of both governments were to have sat down last March to resume talks, but Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio canceled the meeting because of the decision by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to hold an oversight hearing regarding a White House-sponsored bill seeking to apply U.S. laws on immigration and the minimum wage to the Northern Marianas.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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