House approves legislation expanding trade with Russia

The House passed legislation Friday morning that expands trade with Russia while allowing for sanctions against Russian officials involved in human rights violations.

Members approved H.R. 6156, which gives Russia and Moldova permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status, in an overwhelming 365-43 vote. The bill was opposed by a handful of Republicans and about three dozen Democrats.

Granting Russia the trade status is a step the United States needs to take if it is going to benefit from the concessions Russia made when it entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August. Russia's ascension marked the end of a nearly two-decade effort to join the WTO, which sets global trade rules and fosters favorable trading terms between members. 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) on Friday said the bill would help dramatically expand U.S. exports to Russia.

"This bill would allow us to gain important rights and powerful new enforcement tools with respect to one of the world's largest economies without giving up a single tariff or other concession," he said. "We could double or even triple U.S. exports to Russia within five years."

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Recent votes to expand trade have led to deeper opposition from Democrats, who have pushed for stronger labor, environmental and human-rights commitments as part of trade agreements. But in this case, several Democrats spoke and voted in favor of the bill, since it also includes language requiring the administration to impose sanctions against Russian officials involved in the beating and death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.

Over the last two days, several Democrats praised the bill not only as a way to keep pressure on Russia on human rights, but as a possible model for attracting bipartisan support for future trade legislation.

"H.R. 6156 will become known as a landmark piece of legislation not because it grants PNTR for Russia and Moldova, but because it includes Title IV, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Thursday.

"The Magnitsky legislation was added here in part in recognition that when you talk about trade, you have to look at a fuller picture," added Ways and Means ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.).

The Magnitsky language would require the administration to identify officials involved in the lawyer's death, make those names public, and freeze the U.S. assets related to those officials. Magnitsky was investigating corruption and theft of the Russian Government when he was jailed.

During debate, members of both parties noted that the language allows the administration to identify some Russian officials on a classified list, if doing so advances national security. But many stressed that use of the classified list should be rare.

"So to erase any doubt, let me state for the record that the clear intent of Congress is that this exception will be used only in rare cases, and that misuse by the administration will quickly prompt a strong response," Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said. Ranking member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said Congress's "expectation is that the use of the classified list will be an exception, not the rule."

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a long-time human rights champion, said the Magnitsky language will send a strong message of U.S. support for high human rights standards around the world.

"What this bill is saying, is that murderers and torturers are not welcome in this country," he said. It's unclear whether the Senate will maintain it when it takes up the bill, or whether it will seek broader language aimed at keeping pressure on Russia on the issue of human rights.

While Democrats seemed ready to support the bill because of the Magnitsky language, a key Republican said she feared the package as a whole might be too much of a concession for Russia. Ros-Lehtinen said she still opposes giving Russia PNTR status not only because of Russia's human rights issues, but because it gives too much to a country that is thwarting U.S. interests in other areas.

"Repealing the [Jackson-Vanik] amendment could very well be interpreted as an indication that our commitment is now weakening," she said. "This would be a terrible signal to send at a time when Vladimir Putin is in the process of imposing ever-tighter restrictions on all opposition to his regime, especially democratic activists and any others who dare to defy the authorities.

"I also oppose granting Russia PNTR at this time because it is but one more concession by the United States in pursuit of the president's failed reset of relations with Moscow," she added, citing a "one-sided" New START treaty and Russia's pursuit of policies in Iran that the U.S. opposes.

Ros-Lehtinen said she would vote for the bill because of the Magnitsky language.

Regarding the commercial aspects of the bill, Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), a vocal opponent of expanded trade, said he fears the administration may not fully enforce Russia's trade obligations, and that U.S. companies will need more help understanding Russia's trade obligations. In a colloquy, Michaud secured a commitment from Levin to work with him to ensure Russia's obligations are fully enforced at the WTO, and that the U.S. Trade Representative works with companies trying to benefit from Russia's membership.

For decades, the U.S. considered Russia's trade status on an annual basis, as required under the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974. Jackson-Vanik tied Russia's trade status to open emigration policies in Russia, particularly its policies allowing Soviet Jews to emigrate.

But that policy has been waived annually for more than 20 years now.

"We continue to have very serious concerns about the human rights situation in Russia," House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said. "But as the specific root causes of Jackson-Vanik no longer exist, it has been waived for Russia every year since 1989."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a former aide to President Reagan, welcomed the vote and said all members should support efforts to revoke a Cold War-era policy.

"The Russian people have to know that after today, we have left the Cold War behind," he said. "We will quit vilifying the Soviet Union and holding them to a different standard than we do to other countries, simply because in the past, they were our enemies."

Republicans who voted no included Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas).