- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

The House last night rejected legislation to give Vietnam permanent normalized trading status, handing President Bush a defeat just before he heads to the country for a major economic summit.

The vote was 228-161 in favor, 32 votes short of the required two-thirds majority needed to pass under a procedure House Republicans adopted in an attempt to rush it through with limited debate.

The measure is necessary for the United States to benefit from its former enemy’s pending membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). A vote in the Senate is likely later this week, before Mr. Bush arrives in Hanoi for a summit with Asian leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this weekend.

The vote came after Vietnam’s communist government freed an American citizen it had convicted of plotting against it and she returned to the United States yesterday. Florida resident Thuong Nguyen “Cuc” Foshee spent more than a year in jail before being convicted last week with two other U.S. nationals and four Vietnamese on terrorism charges.

Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, had threatened to hold up the trade bill pending resolution of the case.

Most House members during debate yesterday supported the bill, although some raised concerns about the lack of hearings, potential damage to the U.S. textile industry and religious freedom and human rights concerns.

Outgoing Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, said if Vietnam lives up to its WTO commitments, “it will encourage and accelerate the opportunity for needed reforms in a tangible way that impact the Vietnamese people’s lives daily.”

The White House had urged Congress yesterday to pass the legislation before Mr. Bush arrived in Hanoi.

House Republicans, who were surprised at the amount of opposition to the bill, could bring the measure up again under normal procedures that require only a majority of votes for passage.

U.S.-Vietnamese economic and trade relations have expanded significantly in the past several years, with American companies investing billions of dollars in Asia’s second-fastest-growing economy after China.

Lawmakers yesterday raised concerns about an absence of safeguards against a surge of imports from Vietnam and about human rights issues. Some Democrats raised a red flag over the bill’s consideration without hearings, hinting that such procedures will not be followed in the future.

Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, termed the House consideration of the bill “not a wise procedure” and one that would not be followed in the future.

“Bills of this nature, I believe, will have hearings before a committee,” he said.

Rep Dennis J. Kucinich was the most critical of the bill, saying that developing countries’ experience under WTO rules has been “disappointing at best.”

“I worry about the Vietnamese people if the PNTR should pass,” the Ohio Democrat said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat, particularly criticized Vietnam’s human rights record.

“The Vietnam record on religious freedom and human rights continues to be an impediment to a full flowering of the partnership with the United States,” he said.

The United States continues to have concerns about the pace of political reforms in the nation of 84 million over its one-party rule, human rights, religious and press freedom.

Yesterday, State Department officials said Vietnam will be dropped from a list of countries that limit religious freedom. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to travel to Vietnam next week.

• Nicholas Kralev reported from Hanoi, and Steve Hirsch from Washington.

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