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Surging oil prices helped pushed imports to a record high in April as the U.S. trade deficit rose to $8.63 billion.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that the April deficit was 7.7 percent above a revised March imbalance of $8.01 billion.The two biggest items on America's overseas shopping list - oil and foreign cars - both showed big increases for the month.

Petroleum imports soared 30 percent to $5.85 billion as the average price for a barrel of crude jumped to $19.33, the most expensive since the start of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991.

U.S. exports of goods and services also set a record during the month, climbing 1 percent to $69.94 billion. However, this improvement was offset by a 1.7 percent jump in imports, which climbed to an all-time high of $78.57 billion. The trade deficit is the difference between imports and exports.

Imports of autos and auto parts rose 4.6 percent to $10.51 billion in April.

For the year, the U.S. deficit is running at an annual rate of $98.9 billion, a slight improvement from the seven-year high of $105.06 billion for 1994.

The rising trade imbalance has proven an inviting target for Republican critics of President Clinton, who took office vowing to make trade promotion a key part of U.S. foreign policy.

The administration insists the strategy is working, pointing to the fact that exports are climbing to new highs. But Republicans point to the rising deficits as evidence that American workers are still losing jobs to foreign competition despite Clinton's high-profile efforts to open foreign markets.

Earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole called Clinton's trade strategy with Japan a "spectacular failure," dismissing last year's auto agreement with Japan as virtually meaningless.

For April, U.S. exports of autos and auto parts to Japan rose 14.7 percent to $437 million. But this figure was still swamped by the $2.96 billion in Japanese auto products shipped to this country during April.

The overall deficit with Japan edged down a slight 0.2 percent in April to $4.1 billion. But the deficit with China went the other way, surging 28.9 percent to $2.34 billion, reflecting a big jump in shipments of electronic toys and games.