By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A business coalition on Wednesday signaled it has given up hope that Congress would pass critical legislation to upgrade trade ties with Russia before that country enters the World Trade Organization on August 22.
"Congress must pass PNTR (permanent normal trade relations) as soon as possible after returning from recess in September, or else risk putting U.S. businesses, workers and farmers at a long-term disadvantage in this important market," the Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade said in a statement.
The group includes major business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers and dozens of U.S. companies such as Boeing, Ford, General Electric, International Paper, Microsoft and General Motors, which hope to capitalize on Russia's entry into the WTO.
Business leaders have been working for months to persuade Congress to approve the PNTR legislation to ensure U.S. companies share in all the market-opening concessions Russia made to join the world trade body.
It would do that by repealing a mostly symbolic Cold War-era restriction on trade between the two countries known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was passed in 1974 to put pressure on the former Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate.
The effort has been burdened by the perception that approving PNTR would be doing a favor for Russia, at a time when many lawmakers are frustrated by Moscow's support for Syria and Iran and question its commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
But "by denying them PNTR, we're really denying American companies, American workers an opportunity to sell more products in Russia and have the benefit of all the rules that Russia will have to comply with as a member of the WTO," U.S. Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats told reporters on Tuesday.
"At a time when we need to be creating American jobs, denying PNTR costs American jobs," Hormats said.
BOEHNER FAULTS WHITE HOUSE
The White House has called PNTR for Russia its top legislative trade priority this year, but House Speaker John Boehner last week said President Barack Obama had not done enough to whip up Democratic support for the bill.
Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, told reporters on Wednesday that House Republicans would not schedule action on the measure until two conditions are met: a firm date for Senate action on the bill and a firm indication of how many House Democrats will vote for the bill.
"We're going to need those two things to move PNTR this week. We're going to need them to move it in September, and we're going to need them to move it in a lame duck session," Brady said, referring to different possible time frames for action on the bill.
"Lame duck" refers to the legislative session that takes place after the November election and before new members of Congress are seated in January.
"The sooner we get those two elements solidified, the better," Brady said.
Both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee have approved PNTR legislation by wide bipartisan margins.
But union groups, a key Democratic constituency, flooded lawmakers last week with letters opposing the bill.
Brady said it was unclear how many Democrats in the House supported the measure and that Republicans would not be able to pass the bill on their own.
Meanwhile, Democrats accused House Republicans of trying to shift responsibility for inaction on bill.
"Since when does House leadership take orders from Obama? They are putting up strawmen as an excuse for why they're not acting," a Democratic aide said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Neil Stempleman and; Cynthia Osterman)