Tom DeLay, Republican whip in the House of Representatives, likes his image as a China-basher. He has bragged of confronting the Chinese ambassador after violent protests damaged the US Embassy in Beijing, gripping his hand tightly and warning him not to mistake the 'weakness' of his President for the weakness of the American people. Yesterday Mr DeLay was still talking tough, but using his abrasiveness to deliver Republican votes for normalising trade relations. His efforts captured the drama of a historic day. At one point, an amendment surfaced that could have sent the bill back to committee and delayed the vote, perhaps critically. Several congressmen wanted a fresh assurance trade privileges would be scrapped should China invade Taiwan. Irrelevant, Mr DeLay charged, eager to get down to business. Other laws provided for such contingencies, he said. The vote - amid wide and passionate debate - was back on track and eventually passed by a better than expected margin. 'With the passage of PNTR, the forces of reform in China are closer to receiving the tools that they will need to transform an oppressive Communist Party with its tyranny into a free market democracy,' Mr DeLay said later. It was not always so smooth out on the floor. As top Clinton staffers sought back-room deals to win over waverers, the rhetoric ran thick and fast in the House itself over five hours of debate. Few votes this year have energised the body like this one. There were eloquently expressed worries over American jobs, loss of congressional power and a nagging trade deficit currently running more than US$60 billion (HK$463 billion) in China's favour. There were fears over China's sincerity on reform, human rights and Taiwan and its interest in ensuring compliance with the World Trade Organisation while others appealed to America's highest motives of liberty and justice in voting a simple 'yes' to trade. There was a fair amount of bluntly expressed opinion. Dana Rohrabacher, a Californian Republican who was never going to be swayed, claimed China's military could soon defeat the United States. Beijing was fully prepared to 'incinerate millions of Americans' if push ever came to shove. His Republican colleague from Indiana, Dan Burton, seemed to think it soon would. 'It's more money to buy rope to hang us with,' Mr Burton said of the trade deficit. 'They are building the largest standing army in the world and using our money to do it with . . . they are an enemy and we are doing exactly what we did before World War II.' The appeasement line never got far and neither did the concept of isolation. Large and significant doubts still exist, even among some who voted yes, and considerable work remains to be done. Even so, it was engagement and unity that won the day. Chuck Rangel, a prominent Democrat who staged a pivotal late defection to back his own party, emerged from the floor with a beaming smile. 'It scared the hell out of me to be on the same side as Tom DeLay for once . . . but that's politics.'