Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The House yesterday put off voting again on legislation giving Vietnam normal trading status, meaning President Bush will not have the deal when he makes his first visit to the former U.S. enemy this weekend.

Although the legislation — necessary for the U.S. to benefit from Vietnam’s pending entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) — garnered 228 votes for and 161 against Monday night, it fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for approval under expedited procedures.

House Republicans had hoped to vote again today under normal procedures requiring a simple majority. But yesterday they gave up on that effort.

“The measure will not be brought up this week via regular order. We expect the bill will be revisited sometime prior to adjournment this year,” said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

Vietnam will enter the WTO in coming weeks, and an approval of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) is necessary for the U.S. to benefit from the market access opportunities that will follow Vietnam’s membership.

Business and labor observers were shocked that the bill did not pass as expected, with some blaming Republican leaders for not doing their homework before bringing the bill to a vote.

William A. Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, noted that Democrats provided 90 of the 228 votes for the bill, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who is likely to be the new House speaker; Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland; Charles B. Rangel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee; and Sander M. Levin of Michigan, who also serves on Ways and Means.

Sixty-six Republicans voted against the measure, though, “So ask the Republicans what went wrong,” Mr. Reinsch said.

Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO labor federation, used a similar tone, citing “administrative bungling” by the Republican leadership.

“I think everybody assumed it would be an easy vote, and they didn’t do your basic vote counts, and they certainly didn’t check in with people after the election, and therefore they got taken off balance,” she said.

Ms. Lee said she thought the election “changed the calculus” on trade issues.

The extent of the opposition could be a signal that Mr. Bush’s trade agenda is headed for tough times in a Congress that will be controlled by Democrats, who are likely to push for tougher human rights and labor measures in free-trade agreements.

“It looks like the administration is in for hard battles,” said Gary Hufbauer, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “So many of the new members excoriated free-trade deals during their campaigns for taking jobs overseas.”

Mr. Reinsch disagreed, saying he did not see the vote as necessarily a harbinger of a more protectionist mood in Congress and adding there is a pro-trade center in both parties.

Myron A. Brilliant, vice president for Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, advised against reading too much into the vote, pointing out there was “some confusion” and calling the vote “an unfortunate outcome, because it’s really a no-brainer.”

“In bipartisan fashion, the U.S. Congress should be supporting Vietnam’s PNTR, not just because it’s going to open up Vietnam’s market for U.S. products, but also it’s part of the healing process in our relationship with Vietnam,” he said. “It’s part of the normalization of that relationship, and so Democrats and Republicans alike should be coming together on this one.”

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