WASHINGTON, July 11 -- President Clinton's decision Tuesday to normalize relations with Vietnam was applauded by Democrats but criticized by most Republicans on Capitol Hill, who threatened to block implementation of formal recognition of the Southeast Asian nation. One prominent Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, bucked the party trend and stood by Clinton's side during the White House announcement. McCain was imprisoned for more than five years during the Vietnam War, including four years at the notorious Hanoi Hilton. But he said he could not let his resentments from the war cloud his judgment now. 'I believe it is my duty to encourage this country to build from the losses and the hopes of our tragic war in Vietnam a better peace for both the American and the Vietnamese people,' McCain said. 'By his action today, the president has helped bring us closer to that worthy goal.' Other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., blasted Clinton's announcement and threatened to block funding and ambassador appointments when those measures come before the Senate. Dole, a World War II veteran, lambasted restoration of diplomatic relations as 'a strategic, tragic and moral mistake' that sacrifices the United States' best bargaining tool to secure information on POWs and MIAs. And Dole accused Clinton, who has taken considerable heat for avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War, of ignoring that concern and going back on a promise in 1992 to withhold normalized relations from any nation that fails to cooperate on missing Americans.
'Congress has no say in this decision. In the coming weeks and months, Congress will watch...and our role will not be passive,' Dole said, noting that Congress must approve money and confirm any ambassador-designate to implement Clinton's decision. Helms agreed. 'This is a mistake, in my judgment, of the highest order,' Helms said, and warned, 'Congress has the power of the purse.' House Republicans joined in condemnation of the move. House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., said recognizing Vietnam 'betrays' American families who still seek information about their missing loved ones. 'Full diplomatic recognition will mean the end of any leverage or influence that the United States would be able to exert on Vietnam in obtaining as complete an accounting as possible of our missing personnel,' said Gilman, who announced that hearings into missing servicemen in Vietnam would be held Wednesday. Rep. Robert Dornan, R-Calif., an outspoken critic of Clinton's activities during the Vietnam War, likened recognition of Vietnam to the current situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 'If the Serbs were to capture our pilots and beat them to death, or hold them prisoner for seven, eight or nine years, they could be assured all they would need to do is look ahead 20 years for their own Rose Garden ceremony,' Dornan said at a congressional hearing into the downing of a U.S. F-16 over Bosnia last month. The House's leading Republican, Speaker Newt Gingrich, released no comment on the decision Tuesday. But he said over the weekend that he was not ready to support or oppose diplomatic relations with Vietnam until he has heard from Clinton and Dole. Despite the Republican criticism and threats, Clinton enjoyed broad support from congressional Democrats. 'The president showed courage in taking a step that is clearly in our national interest and in the interest of the families of our Vietnam-era servicemen and women,' said Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill. 'This is the right course to take and the right moment to take it.' Sen. Clairborne Pell, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Vietnam War divided the nation 20 years ago, and should no longer be an issue. 'Now is the time for us to look forward to a new future with Vietnam, a future of mutual benefit,' Pell said. 'Normalization is the right way to do it.' Rep. Thomas Foglietta, D-Pa., who recently returned from a fact- finding mission to Vietnam with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he backed Clinton. 'I saw the efforts of the men and women trying to trace the missing American soldiers,' Foglietta said. 'I am convinced that every effort is being made on this issue, and so are our military people involved in this effort. 'We are using every bit of human energy, technology and science to locate the MIAs,' Foglietta said. The ranking Democrat on the House International Relations, Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, said Clinton's goal of engaging Vietnam gradually -- by first easing restrictions on Vietnam, and then dropping opposition to World Bank loans and lifting the trade embargo -- was working. 'Normalizing relations allows us to make our voice heard in Hanoi on a wide range of issues of interest to the United States,' Hamilton said. 'It also promises to open up trade and investment possibilities for the American business community, which is anxious to tap the potential of the Vietnamese market.'