The US House of Representatives was within hours of passing a vote early this morning for Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with the mainland, as Beijing agreed to drop an 11-year ban on US tobacco imports. In a letter released by the US Agriculture Department, the mainland's quarantine agency agreed to allow the imports even while discussions on the issue continued. 'It is my belief that the satisfactory resolution to this issue will be found very soon,' said Yu Dahai, deputy chief administrator of the quarantine agency. Meanwhile, fierce debate was under way across the floor of a bitterly divided House facing its toughest vote this year, but both Democrat and Republican leaders were optimistic of victory. 'Everything is breaking our way,' chief Republican whip Tom DeLay said, announcing he was now confident of pulling in at least 150 votes of the 218 required after a number of last-minute defections, including ardent Beijing critic Christopher Cox, who chairs the House panel that issued last year's controversial congressional report on Chinese espionage. Mr Clinton was locked in personal talks with a group of hold-out Democrats but his vote-counters insisted they would pull in between 70 to 80 votes. As the debate opened, Mr Clinton issued a last-ditch appeal in a letter to all members of Congress to urge them to vote for the bill. 'If we want prosperity for our people, if we want to stand for freedom, if we want peace and security for our nation and the world, I believe the choice is clear: We must extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China,' he wrote. In back-room negotiations, however, Mr Clinton and his top staff faced more domestic concerns, reflecting the delicate nature of such a contentious vote in election year. Mr Clinton was being asked to confirm pledges covering everything from a weather station to defence contracts for individual districts. As debates - and last-minute pork-barrel politicking - raged inside, protest groups including American labour groups and dissidents thronged Capitol Hill claiming Congress was poised to turn a blind eye to 800,000 American job losses and ongoing human rights abuses on the mainland. 'Vote with your conscience, not just for profit,' labour activist Harry Wu Hongda told placard waving crowds. American labour groups were also targeting individual congressmen in their home districts, battling against a US$15 million (HK$116 million) business lobbying juggernaut. Final passage of the trade bill would end annual reviews of Beijing's trade status and permanently guarantee Chinese goods the same low-tariff access to US markets as products from nearly every other nation. China would, in turn, open a wide range of markets, from agriculture to securities and telecommunications, and cut tariffs for US firms as part of its entry into the World Trade Organisation. Without PNTR, China is unlikely to pass those benefits on to American firms, putting their international competitors at an advantage. The White House insists this would scotch any progress in Sino-US ties and place regional security at risk. Opponents of the bill were warning that Beijing could not be trusted. California Democrat Nancy Pelosi raised human rights and defence concerns but said she objected also on commercial grounds. 'China has never honoured any of its trade agreements with the United States,' she warned. 'There are serious reasons to reject this proposal on trade alone.'