By Ramsey Cox
The Senate voted to grant Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status on Thursday.
On a 92-4 vote, the Senate approved the Russia trade bill with broad bipartisan support.
“We have to take very difficult votes in this chamber, but this is not one of them,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said before the vote. “PNTR is good for United States jobs ... and this is strong human rights legislation.”
The same bill passed in the House last month with broad support — it was approved on a 365-43 vote.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former U.S. trade representative to the WTO, said he supported the measure because it would help generate new U.S. jobs in manufacturing and farming industries.
“We need to do all we can that we make sure our farmers and workers have access to the 95 percent of consumers that are outside of the U.S. borders,” Portman said on the floor Wednesday evening. “Without passing this legislation, our farmers and workers will get left behind.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) had hoped to include human rights language that would have imposed travel and financial sanctions on alleged human rights violators around the world, but the House-passed version included language that sanctions only violators in Russia.
Cardin said passing the bill would make sure the United States was “on the right side of history” and was a step forward in protecting human rights globally.
Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted against the trade bill.
Levin said Wednesday that he would have preferred that the Senate vote on its version of the bill, which included the sanctions worldwide, rather than just affecting Russia.
“I don’t understand why we’re not taking up the Senate version and applying these standards universally,” Levin said on the Senate floor Wednesday night. “The only answer I can get is that the House might not pass the Senate version. Well, we should do what we think is right.”
The Magnitsky language — largely supported by Democrats — would require the administration to identify officials involved in Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsk’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.
Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that portion of the bill was “a powerful new tool to battle corruption” in Russia.
“If the [Obama] administration uses these tool effectively we will see ourselves in the future working side-by-side with a Russia free of corruption,” Hatch said.
The bill now goes to President Obama’s desk for his signature. The administration said it supports the measure.
Several senators said they wished the Obama administration would be firmer with Russia on sanitary restrictions — Russia has not allowed some U.S. produce and meat imports because of sanitary restrictions, despite having similar sanitary standards as the United States. The bill includes language that urges trade negotiators to continue to work on making sure there are not “unjustifiable” reasons for why U.S. agriculture products can’t be exported to Russia.