Hopes President Bush may have had of signing Vietnam trade legislation before departing for the Asia economic summit in Hanoi have faded as Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have decided to temporarily not re-submit a bill that unexpectedly failed a House vote Monday.
The setback involves legislation to establish permanent normal trade relations [PNTR], once known as Most Favored Nation status, with Vietnam.
Monday, the president's hopes that the legislation would clear Congress in time for his trip to Hanoi and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] summit in Hanoi, received an unexpected blow.
While the bill received a majority of votes, with 228 members voting for it and 168 opposed, it failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority to pass under a legislative method used to consider bills considered "non-controversial", falling short by 32 votes.
In the Monday vote, 94 Democrats voted against the bill, joined by 66 Republicans and one Independent, while 90 Democrats joined 138 Republicans in supporting it.
Though House Republicans said they might make another attempt, Majority Leader John Boehner now says the measure will not be brought up again this week, adding he expects the House will revisit it before the Republican-controlled 109th Congress adjourns.
Granting Vietnam permanent normal trade relations has been near the top of the president's trade agenda, which also includes hopes that another trade pact involving Peru and Andean countries would pass in coming weeks.
PNTR would normalize trade ties with Vietnam more than a decade after the countries established diplomatic relations in 1995, and five years after Vietnam and the U.S. signed a bilateral trade deal.
Congressional approval is necessary if Vietnam is to obtain full benefits of eventual membership in the World Trade Organization.
On Monday, Democrats and Republicans echoed the Bush administration position that PNTR could help promote change in other areas such as democratization and human rights in Vietnam.
Congressman Bill Thomas managed the debate for Republicans:
"There is still concern on Vietnam's record on human rights and religious freedom," said Bill Thomas. "Just because it decides to join the World Trade Organization doesn't mean that it has decided in all aspects to join the world's civilized nations, in its behavior not only to its people, and to others."
But discussion also focused on the question of safeguards against potential dumping of textiles on the U.S. market, a key concern of lawmakers from textile-producing states.
Supporters said they thought concerns about dumping were resolved by changes in the bill, but Democratic Congressman Sander Levin disagreed:
"The Bush administration did not negotiate a general surge provision here, nor a textile surge provision," said Sander Levin. "There were both in the China [WTO] accession agreement. This is a serious, or at least, an omission that should not be replicated."
Trade between the U.S. and Vietnam reached about $8 billion in 2005, and advocates of PNTR point to what they say would be advantages of opening Vietnam's market to U.S. manufactured goods and agricultural commodities.
Republican's decision not to bring the bill up again immediately came amid reports that PNTR for Vietnam still faced obstacles in the Senate, where two senators were still considering a U.S. Trade Representative plan to monitor Vietnamese apparel imports once Vietnam joins the WTO.