Russia's bad reputation on Capitol Hill could derail trade legislation that is needed to prevent U.S. businesses from losing out to their competitors for access to the world's ninth-largest economy.
The issue has aligned the White House, Tea Party freshmen and the business community, which are all pushing for Congress to lift Cold War-era trade restrictions before Russia joins the World Trade Organization next month.
But the effort has stalled in the House, where lawmakers are split on how to continue holding Russia accountable for its human rights record if they eliminate the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment.
The effort is moving along in the Senate, where the trade panel is scheduled to mark up a bill establishing permanent normal trade relations with Russia — as required under WTO rules — on Wednesday. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he intends for his committee to separately consider bipartisan legislation establishing financial and travel restrictions on Russians involved in human rights abuses.
The House trade panel, meanwhile, has yet to even produce a trade bill. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) is hoping to get his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), to cosponsor a bill, congressional and lobbying sources say, but the two remain far apart.
Ways and Means Republicans “aren't going to make this a partisan thing. And why should they?” the GOP aide said. “There you have what's holding [things] up — [Camp] trying to figure out what it's going to take to get Levin and others on board.”
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is due to meet behind closed door with Baucus and Camp on Thursday, according to his schedule, suggesting the White House is eager to get the ball rolling. President Obama has promised to double U.S. export by the end of 2014, and Baucus said establishing permanent normal trade relations with Russia should double exports there within five years.
Camp has said he wants his panel to pass a clean bill, without human rights provisions. He told The Hill on Tuesday that he doesn't know when he'll be ready to bring up a bill.
“I don't have any firm calendar on that,” Camp said. “I'll be very interested in what the Senate does.
“We're engaged on the issue with both the administration and other leadership. I've been working closely with them to try to establish a path forward. I think some progress has been made, but I don't really have any prediction.”
Asked what the hold-up was, Camp said that “with every piece of legislation — not just particularly this one — there's lots of work to position something for floor activity. We're just working behind the scenes to get that done.”
Pressure on the House is expected to increase substantially now that the Russian parliament has voted to join the WTO, kicking off a 30-day countdown to formal accession following ratification, which is expected next week.
The Russia trade bill is this year's top trade priority for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the powerful business lobby has already had 250 meetings so far this year with lawmakers and their staff, according to one of the group’s lobbyists.
In addition, 73 of the 87 House Republican freshmen sent President Obama a letter on Friday pledging their support for passing a trade bill through the House.
“Like many in the United States, we are greatly concerned by some aspects of the broader U.S.-Russian relationship and Russia's actions around the world,” reads the letter, which was spearheaded by Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.). “Yet we will only hurt ourselves and lose out on economic opportunities and needed jobs to our competitors around the world if we do not act quickly to remove unnecessary barriers to a full trade relationship with Russia.”
Some Republicans have blamed the White House for being AWOL from the House while focusing exclusively on the developments in Senate, but Levin denied that’s the case.
“It's not true. It's an argument for inaction,” Levin said. “Essentially what has to happen now is we have to sit down and work this out. That hasn't happened yet.”
Levin said his “strong preference” would be for the human rights language to be attached to the trade bill in committee. But he left open the possibility of a compromise where the human rights bill could be tacked on later, possibly as an amendment on the House floor or in conference between the two chambers.
“There just has to be an assurance,” Levin said. “We need to work that out. It would be better to be in the [trade] bill, but we'll see what happens in the Senate.”
Levin reiterated that the human rights bill had to pass for the trade bill to have a chance. But beyond that, he has certain conditions for the trade provisions themselves.
“First of all, there are some trade issues that need to be resolved — four or five additional provisions, mostly relating to enforcement, in terms of intellectual property, technology agreements — language that aren't conditions but make clear what's expected,” Levin told The Hill. “I'm hopeful that some of the trade enforcement issues will be added to the bill in the Senate."
Levin also reiterated his call for the trade bill to remain on the House floor for several days while Congress reviews Russian support for President Bashar Assad in Syria, where more than 15,000 people have died in an uprising against the regime.
“I just want us to send a clear message to Russia that they need to begin to work with the rest of the countries in terms of a change in Syria,” Levin said. “If it were so inflamed in Syria and kids were killed the day before [the House voted], it isn't going to pass if Russia wasn't becoming part of the effort to bring about change.”
Russia, meanwhile, has tried to persuade lawmakers to abandon the human rights bill, with little success. Four Russian senators visited Capitol Hill this past week to argue that the man the bill is named after — whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Russian police custody in 2009 — was a crook.
“It is absolutely illogical to make a link between Jackson-Vanik and Magnitsky,” Sen. Alexander Savenkov, the vice-chairman of the Russian Senate's judiciary panel, told reporters at a Russian embassy event on Wednesday, according to a translator.
Savenkov questioned why U.S. lawmakers were naming a bill after someone linked to "schemes for massive tax evasion," whose death he said would not have even been in the logical "interest of Russian authorities."
Savenkov said the White House appears to want to quickly solve the trade issue but that "some political, marginal forces" want to tie it to Magnitsky. "The first step here is to separate" the two, he said.
The Russians said they met with Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a cosponsor of the Magnitsky bill, but couldn't get an audience with bill sponsor Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
Efim Malkin, a member of the Russian Senate's foreign affairs panel, suggested that Cardin "probably thought there would be scandalists who would come," apparently referring to protestors.
Cardin's office blamed a scheduling conflict.
David Kaner contributed