House panel to take up Russia trade agreement

AP News
Posted: Jul 19, 2012 3:31 PM
House panel to take up Russia trade agreement

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House committee that oversees trade will vote next week on a Russia trade bill, giving momentum to legislation that lawmakers and business groups say is crucial to expanding U.S. exports in Russia's growing markets.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., on Thursday announced a bipartisan agreement to advance the legislation, which would remove Cold War restrictions and grant Russia permanent normal trade relations.

Camp also said he and senior Democrats on the committee, including ranking Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan, agreed to combine the trade bill, when it reaches the House floor, with legislation that would impose penalties on Russian government officials determined to be involved in human rights violations.

The House announcement came a day after the Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved a measure that would both extend permanent normal trade status to Russia and establish new human rights sanctions. Lawmakers from both parties have said their votes on the trade bill hinge on also passing the human rights legislation.

The trade agreement "will ensure that U.S. workers, employers, farmers and ranchers have an even playing field when competing for business in Russia," Camp said.

There is a sense of urgency surrounding the legislation because this week, Russia's legislature approved an agreement to join the World Trade Organization, and Russia is expected to formally enter the WTO next month. Without congressional action on permanent trade status, U.S. businesses, farmers and investors would be excluded from the benefits arising from Russia removing trade barriers as part of its WTO membership.

With only two weeks remaining before Congress leaves for its August recess, neither the Senate nor the House has set a date for final votes.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was noncommittal Thursday. "I think we are waiting for Senate action before we make any decisions on how we move forward," he said. "In addition to that, if the administration is serious about expanding trade with the Russians, I think it would be very helpful if they were more forthcoming and promote what they say they want."

Supporters of the measure say current exports to Russia, about $9 billion a year, could double in five years if trade relations are normalized.

The legislation would repeal a 1974 law known as the Jackson-Vanik act that restricted trade with the former Soviet Union as long as it denied the emigration of Jews and other minorities. That law has long outgrown its purpose, but there has been reluctance to overturn it because of persisting poor relations between the United States and Russia.

Current disputes include U.S. criticism of Russian human rights violations, Russia's discrimination of American agriculture products and its failure to stop intellectual property theft, Russia's threats against U.S. missile defenses in Europe and its support of the Assad government in Syria. On Thursday, the White House strongly criticized Russia for vetoing, along with China, a U.N. resolution pressuring Syrian President Bashar Assad to end the bloody conflict in his country. White House spokesman Jay Carney declared the countries had placed themselves on the "'wrong side of history."

The Senate Finance Committee rejected an amendment that would have linked enactment of the trade bill to assurances from the president that Russia is no longer supplying arms to Syria.

The Senate panel did include a human rights measure named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after allegedly being subject to torture. It would impose sanctions, including the withholding of visas and freezing of assets, for officials found to be involved in the Magnitsky case or other human rights violations. The measure has been sharply criticized by the Moscow government.

Camp said the Magnitsky bill was outside the jurisdiction of his committee but that he, Levin and the two leaders of the panel's trade subcommittee, Reps. Kevin Brady, R-Texas and Jim McDermott, D-Wash., favored combining the two bills on the House floor.