WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton is hoping he can win congressional approval before he leaves office for his landmark trade agreement with Vietnam but his top trade negotiator concedes that the dwindling number of days on the legislative calendar could present a challenge.

U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said she would begin consultations with leaders of Congress to work out a timetable. The measure must be approved by both houses of Congress.

``At the end of the day, I think there is a strong majority in both houses and in both parties for normalization of trade relations with Vietnam,'' she said. But she conceded, ``There are not many legislative days left.''

In addition to the Vietnam trade bill, the administration is also awaiting final congressional approval of an even bigger trade prize _ permanent normalized trade relations with China which will clear the way for China to significantly lower its barriers to American exports as part of its membership in the World Trade Organization.

The China legislation has passed the House, but as yet has not been scheduled for debate in the Senate because of questions over China's arms proliferation record.

Barshefsky predicted that even if the Vietnam bill is not approved this year, it would win passage next year because of the strong support it enjoys among American businesses, who are anxious to get into a market of 77 million people.

The deal was signed Thursday by Barshefsky and Vietnam's Trade Minister Vu Khoan, who led a delegation that had been in Washington for a week of marathon talks.

Clinton praised the deal during a Rose Garden ceremony attended by Sen. John McCain and a number of other former Vietnam War veterans who are serving in Congress. The president hailed the trade deal as ``another historic step in the process of normalization, reconciliation and healing between our two nations.''

The trade agreement, the subject of four years of tortuous negotiations, will provide Vietnam with access to the U.S. market on the same terms granted to most other nations. U.S. tariffs on Vietnamese products, which now average 40 percent, would drop to less than 3 percent.

The World Bank has estimated that Vietnamese exports to the United States, which last year totaled $608 million, will increase by $800 million annually.

Currently, our biggest import from Vietnam is coffee, but trade analysts said once the trade agreement is approved by Congress and the high tariffs were lowered, they predicted Vietnamese exports of shoes and textiles would climb rapidly.

U.S. exports to Vietnam totaled $292 million, led by sales of industrial machinery including electric power turbines.

``I think you will see a quick pickup in trade going both ways once the deal is approved,'' said Franklin Vargo, vice president for international affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers.

A year ago, the two countries reached an agreement in principle to normalize trade relations but that deal collapsed when Vietnam's communist government balked at the market-opening provisions its negotiators had reached.

Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994, restored diplomatic relations in 1995 and reopened the U.S. embassy in Hanoi in 1996. He has said he would like to visit Vietnam before his term as president is over but told reporters Thursday that no decision on such a trip had been made yet.

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On the Net: U.S. Trade Representative: http://www.ustr.gov/

State Department background on Vietnam: http://www.state.gov/www/background_notes/vietnam_899_bgn.html