By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would support legislation to upgrade U.S. trade relations with Russia only if Congress also passes a measure to go after Russian human rights violators, his campaign said on Thursday.
"Gov. Romney believes that permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) should only be granted to Russia on the condition that the Magnitsky human rights bill be passed," Lanhee Chen, policy director for the Romney campaign, said in a statement.
Chen was referring to legislation being considered in Congress that would require the U.S. government to impose sanctions on people believed responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, and other human rights violators.
"(Romney) disagrees with the Obama administration's attempts to scuttle the Magnitsky bill and its overall reluctance to shine a light on human rights abuses in Russia and the Putin government's backsliding on democratic principles," Chen said.
Romney, who faces President Barack Obama in the November 6 election, has taken a tough line on Russia, which he has called the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" of the United States.
Russia has warned passage of the Magnitsky bill would harm relations with the United States. But many U.S. lawmakers, unhappy with Moscow on a number foreign policy fronts, are loath to pass the PNTR bill without also sending a message to Russia on human rights.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Moscow under Republican President George W. Bush, said on Thursday the Obama administration believed the PNTR bill should be passed on its own merits.
But the administration continues to work with sponsors of the Magnitsky legislation in both the House and the Senate and appreciates that they "have tried to take into account some of the concerns that we've raised," Burns said.
"We've have to a make a judgment about the legislation on Magnitsky in its final form when it emerges in Congress," Burns said at a rally hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to urge quick action on the Russian PNTR bill.
The administration shares the concern many lawmakers have about Russia's record on human rights and has taken steps to ensure those "implicated in the tragic death of Sergei Magnitsky cannot travel to the United States," Burns said.
Congress is under pressure to approve the trade bill because of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization last month.
To do that, it must lift the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment that tied normal tariff treatment for goods from the former Soviet Union to the rights of Jews to emigrate.
Russia has been deemed in compliance for nearly two decades. But the provision remains on the books, at odds with WTO rules requiring members to provide normal trade relations to one another on an unconditional basis.
Both Burns and U.S. Commerce Under Secretary Francisco Sanchez said the United States would be hurting its own companies, and not Russia, if it failed to pass PNTR.
Since Jackson-Vanik has not been lifted, Russia can legally deny U.S. companies the full market-opening benefits required under its accession to the WTO and the United States has no basis to protest, they said.
Without quick action, companies such as Boeing Co, General Electric Co and Caterpillar Inc could lose substantial sales in Russia to their foreign competitors, Sanchez said.
It's now been "more than two weeks now since Russia joined the WTO. Every day that passes puts American businesses at a competitive disadvantage," Sanchez said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an interview aired on Thursday, took aim at Romney, calling his criticism of Russia "mistaken" campaign rhetoric and suggesting a Romney presidency would widen the rift over the anti-missile shield the United States is deploying in Europe.
Putin also condemned U.S. and British efforts to bar Russians linked to Magnitsky's death.
House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, said last month the House would take up the PNTR bill after it returned next week from a month-long break, and that the Magnitsky bill would be attached to the measure.
House Republicans want to pass the combined legislation on the so-called "suspension" calendar, meaning it could not be amended and would require the support of two-thirds of the House instead of a simple majority.
While business leaders have said they expect the House to vote on September 12, Republican aides said on Thursday that no date has been set yet and they are waiting to see if Democrats can round up their share of the votes needed to win approval.
There is also no word on whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, will schedule a vote on the legislation. Both the House and Senate must pass the legislation in order for Obama to sign it into law.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Will Dunham and Eric Walsh)