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By Cookie B. Micaller

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 11, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---The Northern Marianas has accepted the proposal of Washington to hold the 902 consultations next week after almost a year of delay in resuming bilateral talks aimed at resolving differences in the handling of local labor and immigration laws.

Lt. Gov. Jesus R. Sablan, head of the CNMI 902 team, wrote to President Bill Clinton's top aide, Edward B. Cohen, agreeing to suggestions to begin the four-day informal discussions on January 19.

Cohen is to arrive on Saipan on January 18.

In a letter dated January 6, Sablan told his U.S. counterpart that dialog sessions with the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association have been scheduled in addition to his meetings with local officials during the visit.

According to Sablan, Cohen will be briefed on the reforms being undertaken by the Commonwealth to improve its customs, labor and immigration policies, which have been the subject of federal takeover legislation sponsored by the White House.

A report is being prepared to inform the U.S. official of the financial woes confronting CNMI, as well as the progress on the Covenant Initiative Funding and Capital Improvement Projects, Sablan said.

"The 902 Team is looking forward to beginning our meetings," Sablan said. "The Governor and I are pleased that our governments are taking this important step to work together on the issues that face the Commonwealth."

Sablan expressed optimism that Cohen's trip will provide Washington with an "insightful picture on the complex situation we face and the basis for our positions on the various issues we will be discussing."

The letter, however, did not specify the talking points.

Talks between the two governments were to have resumed in March and then September, but were called off by Commonwealth leaders because of an oversight hearing called by the U.S. Congress and differences in the scope of discussion.

But in Clinton's letter to the Governor, he said he would like his special representative to discuss measures for transition to federal immigration and minimum wage laws, a proposal that is expected to be met with opposition.

The local government has been resisting attempts to federalize labor and immigration in fear that raising the minimum wage to federal standards would lead to business closures and capital flight and curtail the entry of guest workers who comprise the bulk of the CNMI labor force.

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

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