THE SENATE has approved permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China, bringing to an end the annual debate over whether the United States should trade with China or punish it for human rights transgressions.

The 83-15 vote was nowhere near as close as some observers had suggested in the months leading up to the Sept. 19 ballot. The House passed PNTR by a similar margin last spring, and the legislation now goes to the president, who is expected to sign the measure.

Farm organizations, most of which had fought long and hard for PNTR, hailed the decision as a breakthrough for improved agricultural trade.

"China's agreement to eliminate trade barriers and open their markets to U.S. farm goods gives producers yet another weapon to fight the low commodity prices we've been struggling to overcome," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau.

"This is a great one-way deal for U.S. agriculture," said Lynn Jensen, president of the National Corn Growers Association. "We gain access to the largest market in the world - and we give up nothing in return."

In exchange for receiving PNTR and to help clear its way for membership in the World Trade Organization, China has agreed to:

- Reduce agricultural tariffs against U.S. products, including beef, grapes, wine, cheese, poultry and pork, from 31.5 percent to 14.5 percent.

- Establish a tariff-rate quota system for imports of agricultural commodities, including wheat, corn, cotton, barley and rice.

- Permit private trade of U.S. agricultural products in China.

- Eliminate unscientifically based restrictions against U.S. crops and livestock.

- End its own agricultural export subsidies and reduce its domestic subsidies.

"Passage of PNTR will be one for the history books, of profound implication to the United States," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., one of the leading proponents of the legislation.

But Baucus and other supporters said passage of the measure was just the beginning. "Now that it has passed, we Americans have to put our shoulder to the wheel, we have to follow up to make this a truly beneficial development for our farmers and ranchers and other segments of our economy."

Reps. Larry Combest, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Charles Stenholm, the ranking minority member, praised the vote by the Senate, which could lead to an increase of as much as $2 billion in agricultural exports annually by 2005.

"Today's firm backing by Congress signals that American farmers and ranchers will at last break-through China's Great Wall of trade barriers," said Combest.