The U.S. trade deficit (search) grew more than expected in February to a record $61.04 billion, as the U.S. economy sucked in record imports, the government said on Tuesday in a new report.

The trade gap widened 4.3 percent from January, despite a slight increase in exports to a record $100.5 billion. The monthly shortfall was greater than the median estimate of $59 billion from Wall Street analysts. The unexpectedly large jump in the trade gap is likely to cause analysts to trim their estimates for first-quarter economic growth.

U.S. exports continued to be strong, exceeding $100 billion for the third consecutive month. Higher shipments of industrial supplies and materials and consumers goods more than offset declines in capital goods and autos.

Imports set records in several categories — including autos and auto parts, consumer goods and industrial supplies and materials — in a sign of strong U.S. demand.

A jump in average monthly crude oil import prices to $36.85 per barrel propelled the value of petroleum and product imports to the second highest level on record, despite the lowest volume of crude oil in a year.

Overall imports from China dipped to $17.0 billion in February, the lowest level since June, and the U.S. trade deficit with China also fell to $13.9 billion, the lowest since May.

However, in a sector causing political difficulties for the Bush administration, imports of clothing and textiles from the Asian manufacturing giant jumped 9.8 percent in February following the end of U.S. import quotas in January.

Total clothing and textile imports from China for the first two months of 2005 surged 62.4 percent from the same period last year.

Earlier this month, the Commerce Department launched an investigation expected to lead to emergency import curbs on some clothing from China. U.S. producers plan to file petitions asking for additional restrictions.