By Vicki Needham - 07/18/12 11:35 PM EDT
Senators cleared the first hurdle to extending permanent normal trade relations to Russia on Wednesday amid uncertainty about the chances of moving similar legislation through the House.
The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved a measure combining a repeal of Jackson-Vanik, an obsolete Cold War-era provision, with a human-rights measure that would punish Russian officials involved in the death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Unless Congress acts to normalize relations, U.S. businesses could be at a disadvantage against foreign competitors that sell to Russia.
“By enacting [permanent normalized trade relations] together with the Magnitsky bill, we are replacing Jackson-Vanik with legislation that addresses the corruption and accountability issues that Russia confronts today,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said.
Baucus argued that the show of bipartisan support — he and ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) hammered out a compromise — could boost the bill’s chances.
He expressed optimism that the Senate would vote on the measure before Russia joins the World Trade Organization, but conceded that Senate leadership hasn’t indicated whether it will take up the bill.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) cast doubt on holding a vote before the August recess.
“I have not heard it discussed in terms of being scheduled before the recess,” he told The Hill.
But the unanimous vote on the Finance Committee might be enough to sway Senate leadership to consider the measure.
During the past several weeks, business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable have ramped up their push for passage of a trade bill before lawmakers leave town for the summer break.
“This is a huge message to the House and is the momentum burst the business community has been hoping for,” Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the Chamber, told The Hill.
“This is the one issue in Washington with bipartisan support in the House and the Senate that can be signed by the president; there’s no other issue out there. This is a fantastic outcome.”
Despite some discord, Wenk said he’s confident Congress can get a bill to President Obama before the August recess.
Another business group, the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), supports the trade-relations bill but is still opposed to the Magnitsky language.
The measure, “which addresses legitimate human-rights concerns, contains a number of problematic provisions that will unnecessarily complicate U.S.-Russia relations and create a new global unilateral sanction regime for the U.S. government to use against virtually any foreign person for vaguely defined reasons,” said NFTC President Bill Reinsch.
But there was a glimmer of hope that the bill could start to move in the House.
House Ways and Means ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) said Wednesday he supports the bill that cleared Senate Finance and urged the panel to mark up the legislation.
“The outcome of that action is a strong bill that addresses the outstanding issues that we have raised,” Levin said.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who has called for a clean measure, said Wednesday that he intends to introduce a bill soon.
Bernie Becker contributed.
This story was posted at 1:06 p.m. and updated at 7:35 p.m.