‘No’ vote on Viet trade Bill a blow for Hanoi-bound Bush

THE US House of Representatives has voted against a Bill that would have normalised trade relations with Vietnam.

The vote yesterday was seen as an embarrassment for departing Republicans and especially for President George W. Bush, who is hoping to cite the legislation as a milestone in relations with Vietnam when he attends the Apec Summit in Hanoi this week.

The sudden turn of events may prove to be temporary. Legislators are expected to vote again this week on the same measure, which would mean an end to the annual congressional review of Vietnam’s US tariff benefits.

But even if passed by the House, the Bill faces tougher passage in the Senate – making it unlikely that Mr Bush will have it under his belt as expected when he arrives in Hanoi on Friday.

“It is an embarrassment and a disappointing setback, but not fatal,” Ms Virginia Foote, head of the United States-Vietnam Trade Council, told The Straits Times.

But the setback could signal a more obstructionist Congress when Democrats take control of both the House and Senate in January next year. Indeed, several free-trade pacts being negotiated with Asian nations may face resistance, as they are seen as a threat to American jobs.

The Vietnam vote came on the first day of the lame-duck session, in which the outgoing House, still controlled by a Republican majority, met to pass crucial Bills by the end of this year.

The measure failed to win the necessary two-thirds majority it needed under a procedure Republicans adopted to rush it through with limited debate. It received 228 votes – 32 short of what was needed. There were 161 votes against it.

A Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman yesterday described the vote as “very regrettable”, as it went against the “interests and aspirations of the two countries, particularly the interests of US businesses”.

The Republicans were expected to bring the measure up again today under normal procedures that will require only a majority for passage.

Under those circumstances, said Ms Foote, it was likely that the Bill would pass.

In the Senate, there is concern that the administration might not be doing enough to impose penalty tariffs on Vietnamese textile products if the country is found to be selling them at unfairly low prices.

The House vote came several hours after the administration gave Vietnam a concession, ahead of Mr Bush’s trip, by removing it from a list of those countries said to be severe violators of religious freedoms.

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