The U.S. trade deficit set a fifth consecutive annual record in 2006, reflecting a huge jump in America's foreign oil bill and an all-time high for the trade gap with China. The year ended with the December deficit increasing more than had been expected.

The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that the gap between what America sells abroad and what it imports rose to a record $763.6 billion last year, a 6.5 percent increase from the previous record of $716.7 billion set in 2005. For December, the deficit rose a bigger-than-expected 5.3 percent to $61.2 billion.

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The annual trade deficit has set a record for five consecutive years, a development the Bush administration attributes to the fact that the U.S. economy has been growing more rapidly than the rest of the world. The administration argues that American consumers have benefited from the flood of cheaper imports, a development which has helped to hold down inflation.

But critics contend the deficits are a reflection of a flawed trade policy that has failed to protect American workers from unfair foreign competition.

They point to the 3 million manufacturing jobs lost since Bush took office and contend that more companies have been moving production offshore to take advantage of cheaper labor and lax environmental regulations.

Growing unhappiness over the trade deficit and lost manufacturing jobs played a role in a number of congressional campaigns last fall, helping Democrats win control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years.

The latest trade gap comes at a critical time for Bush, who faces the challenge of convincing Congress to extend the authority he needs to strike new free trade agreements with individual countries and pursue a global trade pact.

The current fast-track trade promotion authority expires on July 1 and Democrats say it will not be renewed without greater protections for U.S. workers in the area of labor rights and the environment.

The new trade report showed that the deficit with China shot up 15.4 percent last year to total $232.5 billion, the largest imbalance ever recorded with any country. China surpassed Japan as the country with the largest trade gap with the United States in 2000 and has held the top spot since that time.

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