By  on June 14, 2006

WASHINGTON — Republican and Democratic lawmakers joined U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab on Capitol Hill Tuesday to roll out legislation in Congress that would grant Vietnam permanent normal trade relations status, one of the last major hurdles for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Industry import and retail groups came out to show their support for Vietnam, which exported $2.9 billion in apparel and textiles to the U.S. last year and has been an important sourcing platform for their businesses.

In a separate development, 44 House textile-state lawmakers sent a letter to Schwab opposing the U.S.-Vietnam agreement that was reached as a precursor to the trade legislation. The pact set terms for Vietnam's WTO membership but did not include an extension of existing apparel and textile quotas or a special textile safeguard similar to one with China.

The House members, including the entire North and South Carolina delegations, wrote, "Failure to address these two critical concerns [a safeguard for Vietnam and a separate textile sectoral in the global round of trade talks] will substantially impact our view of the administration's legislative trade agenda from this point forward." The members stopped short of saying they would oppose the legislation normalizing trade relations.

Sens. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) and Gordon Smith (R., Ore.) led a bipartisan group of eight senators, including John McCain (R., Ariz.), John Kerry (D., Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.), in introducing the bill that would give normal trade status to Vietnam.

"Granting permanent normal trade relations status to Vietnam will complete the process of reconciliation begun 15 years ago and worked for by Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill and in the White House," Baucus said at a news conference. "I will work hard to secure passage of this legislation by the August recess."

Reps. Jim Ramstad (R., Minn.) and Mike Thompson (D., Calif.) introduced the legislation in the House with more than 30 bipartisan co-sponsors.

"This is a clear vote in favor of a fair trade mood and one that will resonate," Schwab said.

Retailers and importers have been lobbying Congress to pass the legislation without any amendments, while the domestic textile industry is pushing for a change to the WTO bilateral deal the two countries reached last month. The accession pact contains an enforcement mechanism that will allow the Bush administration to reimpose apparel and textile quotas for a year if Vietnam does not abolish all "prohibited" subsidies to those industries before joining the WTO or within a year of joining.

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