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Russia trade and human rights legislation advances, but time running short

Russia trade and human rights legislation advances, but time running short

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved today a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status as well as a bill to punish Russian human rights violators, but time is running out to pass the legislation through the full House and Senate.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus (R-MT) called on Congress to quickly pass the bills before lawmakers leave town at the end of this month for the long August recess. Russia’s accession to the WTO is imminent, and unless the United States grants Russia PNTR status, U.S. businesses won’t be able to take advantage, he argued.

"There is no time to waste; America risks being left behind," Baucus said. "If we miss that deadline [of Russia’s WTO accession], American farmers, ranchers, workers and businesses will lose out to the other 154 members of the WTO that already have PNTR with Russia. American workers will lose the jobs created to China, Canada and Europe when Russia, the world’s seventh largest economy, joins the WTO and opens its market to the world."

Baucus also trumpeted the fact that the PNTR bill is now officially joined with the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously in June. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators.

"By enacting PNTR together with the Magnitsky bill, we are replacing Jackson-Vanik with legislation that addresses the corruption and accountability issues that Russia confronts today.  The chairman’s revised markup includes the version of the Magnitsky bill that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved last month under [Senate Foreign Relations Committee] Chairman [John] Kerry‘s leadership," Baucus said.

Baucus and Kerry co-authored an op-ed in Politico today urging Congress to move quickly to pass the PNTR-Magnitsky package.

The Russian government is vehemently opposed to the Magnitsky bill and has threatened broad retaliation. A group of Russian senators came to Washington last week to accuse Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison allegedly by torture, of being a tax cheat.

The next step is for the package to be passed in the House, because PNTR is a revenue-related bill and all revenue bills have to originate in the House. Several congressional staffers told The Cable that Ways and Means committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) is now the biggest obstacle to moving forward quickly because he wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnistky bill.

"This has to be done by August recess," one senior senate staffer told The Cable. "It’s all coming down to Camp. Camp is taking this line of being a trade purist and wanting a clean bill. The Senate is ready to do this — the question is whether the House get its ducks in a row."

Camp said in a statement Wednesday that he welcomed "the news that the Finance Committee was able to pass bipartisan Russia PNTR legislation today and will carefully study the bill once legislative text is available."

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also said she wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnitsky bill, but for a different reason. She supports the Magnitsky bill doesn’t support PNTR status for Russia.

President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday morning, but not about the WTO or human rights, according to a White House statement.

"President Obama called Russian President Putin today to discuss the developing situation in Syria," the statement said. "The two presidents noted the growing violence in Syria and agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation."