Top trade panel Dem splits with Obama, calls for linking Russia trade bill to Syria

The top Democrat on the House trade panel Wednesday split with the White House and called for the United States to hold off on improving trade relations with Russia until the Kremlin joins the world in condemning Syria's President Bashar Assad.

“Trade is about commerce; it also can be about conscience,” Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) said in prepared remarks at a hearing on the trade issue.

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The Obama administration and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) are calling for establishing permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia without preconditions. But Levin opened the hearing by calling for linking the improvement of trade ties with Moscow to Syria and passage of human rights legislation. 

Levin urged Congress to pass a bipartisan, bicameral trade bill “with the clear understanding that after a bill is reported out of committee in the near future, action on the floor will be withheld 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.”

Levin added that the trade issue should also be linked to a human rights bill that places financial and travel sanctions on Russian human rights violators. The bill is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer who died in police custody in 2009.

Russia's support for the Assad government sparked outrage in Congress last week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the country of shipping attack helicopters to Syria.

Assad has launched a brutal crackdown on opposition forces in his country, leading to civilian deaths and international condemnation.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, testified during the hearing that failing to pass a clean trade bill would not help the situation in Syria.

“I do not believe that withholding PNTR gives us leverage with Russia on that issue,” Burns said.

Russia is slated to join the World Trade Organization next month, and U.S. exporters will be at a disadvantage with other countries if the United States doesn't repeal Cold War-era trade restrictions.

Burns and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said critics of Russia's human rights record inside the country support the trade relations.

Wednesday's hearing follows a frosty meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday after which they issued a joint statement calling for a democratic transition in Syria.