WASHINGTON (AP) — The House, in its first major vote of the postelection session, is set Friday to remove Soviet-era restrictions that have become an impediment for American manufacturers and farmers trying to sell their products in an expanding Russian market.
Lawmakers from the two parties emphasized their willingness to put partisanship aside in supporting the legislation that both establishes permanent normal trade relations with Russia and introduces sanctions on Russian officials involved in human rights violations.
Concerns about Russia's human rights record and other anti-U.S. policies prevented the House from taking up the Russia trade bill before the election.
Russia entered the World Trade Organization in August, requiring it to lower tariffs and institute other market-opening measures. Without action by Congress to remove a 1974 restriction in the law linking trade to Soviet steps to allow Jews and other minorities to emigrate, the United States would be alone among the 156 WTO members in not having access to those new trade benefits.
American business groups, concerned about losing ground to Europe, China and others seeking entry into Russia's market, have made passage of the trade bill their top trade priority this year. The Senate is expected to address the bill after the Thanksgiving break.
Numerous members said they would not have voted for the trade bill without inclusion of the human rights measure. "The issue that concerns me and many members is not trade but human rights," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chairman of the Rules Committee and a leading advocate of trade bills, said the measure would be a win both for American jobs and "for the people of Russia who deserve better than they've gotten." It's a good thing, he said, "because (Russian President) Vladimir Putin is not a good guy."
The trade bill, unlike bilateral free trade treaties, requires no concessions from the U.S. side. With passage, U.S. companies and farmers would see lower tariffs, better protections for intellectual property and greater access to Russia's service market and would be able to go to the WTO to resolve disputes.
The administration and economists have predicted that U.S. exports of goods and services, currently at $11 billion, could double in five years if trade relations were normalized. If Congress fails to act, business groups say, Americans will fall even further behind Europe and China in tapping a growing market of 140 million consumers.
The bill, the White House said in a statement supporting its passage, "is about providing opportunities for American businesses and workers and creating jobs here at home."
The legislation would also extend permanent normal trade relations to Moldova, another former Soviet state.
At issue is the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade bill that conditioned trade with the Soviet Union to greater freedom for Soviet minorities seeking to leave the country. Since the 1990s, presidents have annually waived the now-obsolete Jackson-Vanik requirement, but it still must be eliminated as part of a permanent trade relations accord.
The accompanying human rights bill is named after Russian lawyer and whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail in 2009 after allegedly being subject to torture. The House bill would impose sanctions such as visa restrictions and the freezing of assets of Russian officials involved in human rights violations. The Magnitsky bill pending in the Senate goes further to extend penalties to human rights violators around the world.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said he would not be supporting the trade bill without the addition of the human rights provision, which he called "probably the most significant piece of human rights legislation attached to any trade bill" in his 16 years in Congress.
"We can vote for this legislation, if I might say so, with good conscience," said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.
Russian officials have voiced strong opposition to the Magnitsky measure. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday that Moscow had prepared a "tough" response to the passage of the Magnitsky bill. On Thursday the ministry spokesman said the measure was an "unfriendly, provocative act."
The Obama administration has said that, while it does not object to the Magnitsky bill, it would have preferred that the trade legislation be taken up on its own. The White House policy statement on the bill refers generally to the need to promote respect for human rights around the world and says the administration will continue to work with Congress to support those seeking a free and democratic future in Russia.