Business groups look for congressional finish line on Russian trade bill

Business groups are hopeful they are near the congressional finish line for winning approval of permanent normal trade relations with Russia.

Though the bill has bipartisan support, Congress was unable to take action before Election Day. But the House is set up to vote on the measure next week.

The House Rules Committee has scheduled work on the bill for Tuesday night, leaving a floor vote possible for Wednesday.

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“Russia PNTR has been the Chamber’s top priority all year so we are very pleased that congressional action is coming soon,” Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told The Hill.

“After the Senate Finance Committee unanimous vote and House Ways and Means voice vote over the summer, it only makes sense that PNTR would be one of the first orders of business after the election,” he said.

House passage would send the bill to the Senate. Lawmakers in the upper chamber have said they proved they were ready to pass the bill after approving it unanimously out of the Senate Finance Committee in July.

The legislation is considered a revenue measure and must be passed by the House first.

Business groups had hoped Congress would act earlier after Russia joined the World Trade Organization three months ago. Russia could raise tariffs on U.S. exports to Russia under WTO rules if Congress does not approve PNTR.

The Chamber will ramp up its presence on Capitol Hill next week to press lawmakers to wrap up the measure as soon as possible.

John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, said the issue is a top priority on the lame-duck agenda along with preventing spending cuts and tax hikes scheduled for January.

More than 500 trade associations and businesses have teamed up as the Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade. They’ve called on Congress and the White House to work together and move quickly to pass a bill.

Without the legislation, U.S. businesses will lose out to competitors in Europe and China, warned Randi Levinas, executive director of the Coalition.

She said the U.S. could lose out as Russia modernizes its infrastructure and industrial base. Businesses will also lose access to a growing consumer class, she said.

“We simply cannot afford to sit idly by and continue to put U.S. exports and jobs at risk when we know there is strong bipartisan support for this legislation in both chambers,” she said.

The measure would repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik provision, a U.S. law aimed at encouraging the emigration of Russian Jews with the threat of higher tariffs. Under the law, lower tariffs on Russian imports must be granted by the president on an annual basis.

It also is expected to include human rights legislation that would punish Russian officials for their involvement in the death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison after reporting government corruption in Russia.

But language on what to include is still under construction. The House's version, which is preferred by businesses, focuses solely on Russia, while the Senate measure authored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is broader and would cover violations around the world.

The Senate linked the trade bill to grant Russia PNTR with human rights legislation while the House panel approved the trade bill on its own with the understanding that some form of the Magnitsky bill would be attached.