Time running out for Russia trade bill

The Russian parliament is expected to vote to join the World Trade Organization (WTP) on Tuesday, giving Congress a short window to either adopt trade legislation or risk seeing U.S. companies trail competitors in the world's ninth-largest economy.

Establishing normal trade relations with Russia is a no-brainer for U.S. businesses eyeing a vast export market, but lawmakers in the House and Senate are still debating how to do that while retaining leverage over the country on human rights.

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Once the Russian parliament ratifies accession to the world trade body, Russia will automatically become a WTO member within 30 days. If the vote happens Tuesday, it means Congress would have to act before the August recess to prevent U.S. companies from losing out.

“The [Obama] administration has consistently urged Congress to terminate application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment and authorize the president to extend permanent normal trade relations to Russia before it becomes a WTO Member,” a spokesperson for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative told The Hill via e-mail.

Doing so would “ensure that American workers and businesses will be able to reap the full benefits of Russia’s WTO membership and to put them on a level playing field with their competitors in Latin America, Europe and Asia,” the spokesperson said.

U.S. trade relations with Russia are governed by the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era statute that permits the United States to slap trade restrictions on Russia. Although U.S. administrations have waived the restrictions every year since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, keeping it on the books violates WTO terms, meaning U.S. firms would not benefit from the preferential access to the Russian market that will be extended to other WTO members.

Russia intends to drive home that point by sending a high-ranking parliamentary delegation to Washington right after the vote to make the case for permanent normal trade relations on Capitol Hill and to the media.

The four Russian senators will focus their discussions on Russia's accession to the WTO, Russian-American bilateral trade and the 2009 death of whistle blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, according to the Russian embassy.

Both parties have latched onto Magnitsky's death, which happened while he was in police custody, to press Russia on human rights. House and Senate panels have passed bipartisan legislation placing financial and travel restrictions on Russian officials involved in Magnitsky's death and other human rights abuses, but Russia has vowed “retaliation” if it becomes law.

Lawmakers are at odds over whether to link the Magnitsky bill to the legislation normalizing trade relations, which has yet to clear either chamber. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whose Senate Finance Committee has jurisdiction over trade, has proposed doing so, but his counterpart on the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. David Camp (R-Mich.), disagrees with the move.

Russia's continued support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has further complicated matters. The top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), has called for the House to delay action on the trade bill “for a period of time to determine whether Russia will join our nation and others in steps to address the Assad regime’s horrendous violence against its own people.”

The Obama administration's apparent inconsistencies on the issue have added to lawmakers' reluctance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in particular, has urged Congress to pass the trade deal — a priority for President Vladimir Putin — while simultaneously calling on other countries to make Russia "pay a price" for supporting Assad.

“I will tell you very frankly, I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all — nothing at all — for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime,” Clinton told a meeting of 60 or so western and Arab nations known as the Friends of Syria on Friday. "The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress — blockading it — that is no longer tolerable.”