WASHINGTON (AP) – Republican supporters of legislation to normalize trade relations with Vietnam say they will try again Wednesday to win House passage of the measure after a surprising initial rebuff.
The extent of the opposition could be a signal that President Bush's agenda of trade liberalization is headed for tough times in a Congress that will be controlled next year by Democrats.
The measure failed Monday night to win the necessary two-thirds majority it needed to pass under a procedure House Republicans adopted in an effort to rush it through with limited debate.
It received 228 votes in support – 32 short of what was needed. There were 161 votes against it.
Ways and Means Committee aides said Republicans planned to bring the measure up again Wednesday under normal procedures that will require only a majority for passage. If there are no vote changes, the measure should pass since it gained 10 more votes than the 218 majority needed under the normal process.
Vietnam on Tuesday called it a setback.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung, in a statement, called the development "very regrettable'' and said that it went against the ''interests and aspirations of the two countries, particularly the interests of U.S. businesses.''
The Vietnam trade bill is heavily supported by U.S. business executives who are eager to get into one of the fastest-growing markets in Southeast Asia.
The administration was hoping to gain approval of the measure before Bush meets this week with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi.
The White House has had to offer textile-state senators assurances that it will impose penalty tariffs on Vietnamese textile and clothing products if the country is found to be selling these goods at unfairly low prices, a practice known as dumping, an agreement that has raised concerns among American retailers.
Business lobbyists still believe they will be able to salvage the Vietnam agreement, given that U.S. companies will lose out to foreign competitors if it is not approved since Vietnam has already won membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
That membership means the United States must grant Vietnam normal trade relations, scrapping the annual congressional review of the country's U.S. tariff benefits.
Under the terms of its membership in the Geneva-based WTO, Vietnam will be required to reduce its tariffs on American and other foreign goods and open up its telecommunications, financial services and other sectors to U.S. and other foreign firms.
Through September, the United States is running a $5.7 billion trade deficit with Vietnam.
Opponents cited this gap and America's soaring trade deficit, which is on track to set a new record close to $781 billion this year, as reasons to oppose granting normal trade status to Vietnam, warning that approval would add to the nearly three million U.S. manufacturing jobs lost since 2001.