By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill to ensure U.S. exporters share in the benefits of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization but also to punish Russian officials for human rights violations.
The legislation still faces an uphill battle to be passed before U.S. elections in November because of concern over Russia's ties to Syria and Iran that make it a politically difficult vote for some lawmakers.
But supporters hoped the committee's strong bipartisan vote improved chances the full Senate and House of Representatives will consider the bill before U.S. lawmakers leave in two weeks for their month-long recess and Russia joins the WTO in August.
"If we miss that deadline, American farmers, ranchers and businesses will lose out to the other 154 members of the WTO," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, said.
In addition, including new human rights legislation in the trade bill makes it unsavory to Moscow, which views those provisions as an intrusion in its affairs.
The Obama administration welcomed the committee's vote on a combined trade and human rights bill, but it said its main priority was establishing "permanent normal trade relations," or PNTR, by terminating a Cold War-era provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
That measure is at odds with WTO rules requiring members to give equal treatment to exports from all other members on an unconditional basis and is the reason that Congress is under pressure to pass the trade legislation.
"We applaud the Senate Finance Committee's action today, and look forward to working with Congress to advance America's interests with regard to Russia's WTO accession as quickly as possible," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said.
The 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment tied favorable U.S. tariff rates on Russian goods to the rights of Russian Jews to emigrate freely. It is mostly symbolic now because both Democratic and Republican administrations have judged Russia to be in compliance since the 1990s. But it remains on the books.
If Congress does not act, Russia could deny U.S. firms some of the market-opening concessions it made to join the WTO, putting those companies at a disadvantage to foreign competitors in one of the world's 10-largest economies.
"Given the slow growth of our economy and continued high unemployment rate, we simply cannot allow that to happen," said Senator Orrin Hatch, the panel's top Republican.
Earlier on Wednesday, the upper house of Russia's parliament overwhelmingly passed legislation to implement the commitments Moscow made to join the WTO. Once Russian President Vladimir Putin signs the bill and formally notifies the WTO, Russia will become the newest member in 30 days.
QUICK ACTION REQUIRED
U.S. lawmakers have fewer than 12 legislative days left before their month-long August recess, requiring quick action in both chambers of Congress to get the trade bill approved.
But the White House push to pass PNTR comes at a low point in U.S.-Russia relations, with many U.S. lawmakers angry over Moscow's support for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the face of a 16-month-old uprising.
Many lawmakers also are loathe to lift the Jackson-Vanik amendment without passing new legislation to punish Russia for perceived human rights abuses.
That prompted Baucus to add the so-called "Magnitsky bill," already passed by two other congressional committees, to the Russian trade bill.
It is named after Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption Russian lawyer who died in 2009 after a year in Russian jails.
The measure directs the State Department to publish the names and deny visas to people believed responsible for the detention, abuse or death of Magnitsky, and for the Treasury Department to freeze their assets.
It would also punish other human rights abusers in Russia or anywhere in the world, and allow certain members of Congress to suggest individuals to be put on the sanctions list.
"What this bill does is hold gross violators of internationally recognized human rights accountable," said Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat who has been a driving force behind the Magnitsky bill.
Moscow strongly opposes the Magnitsky bill.
"Really, the last thing we want is for the anti-Soviet Jackson-Vanik amendment to be replaced with anti-Russian legislation," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying on Wednesday by Interfax news agency.
Both the Democratic Obama administration and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Republican, have said they would prefer a "clean" PNTR bill, free of any human rights provision that would irritate relations with Russia.
But on Wednesday, Camp said he welcomed "the news that the Finance Committee was able to pass bipartisan Russia PNTR legislation today and will carefully study the bill once legislative text is available."
Camp also said he planned to introduce his own PNTR bill "in the next few days." He said he was working with the White House to find a Democratic co-sponsor for the legislation in the hopes of winning committee approval as soon as possible.
However, top Democrats on the Ways and Means panel urged Camp to take up the Senate Finance Committee version.
"We should get Russia PNTR done now -- and this bipartisan bill from the Senate Finance Committee is the right approach," Representative Jim McDermott said.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer and additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Moscow; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Vicki Allen)