Russia trade and human rights bills delayed until after election

Russia trade and human rights bills delayed until after election

The House will not take up a trade bill with Russia or a bill to sanction Russian human rights offenders before leaving for August recess and probably not until after the November elections, key lawmakers say.

The House will adjourn this week without even trying to pass the bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) or the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability Act of 2012, named after the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison after allegedly being tortured. Both bills have passed out of Senate committees after considerable wrangling, and the PNTR bill was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee last week.

But House leaders have decided there just isn’t enough time to bring them to the floor this week before lawmakers leave town for a five-week recess, and now the accusations are flying over why U.S. businesses will not be in a position to take advantage when Russia officially joins the WTO later this month.

House Ways and Means Committee ranking Democrat Sander Levin (D-MI) said that the House Republicans just couldn’t get their caucus to agree on passing a Russia trade bill in the current political environment because of the misconception that the bill would be a gift to Russia and due to anger over Russia’s behavior in Syria.

"The GOP leadership has made the firm decisions [not to take up both bills]," Levin told The Cable in an interview Tuesday evening.

There was a bipartisan effort to strengthen oversight of the trade bill, and there was always an understanding that the House would have to pass the Magnitsky Act in conjunction with the PNTR bill. But top Republicans just couldn’t come up with the votes in their own caucus to get it done, Levin said, so they decided not to try.

"There were problems within the Republican conference," he said. "Russia is going into the WTO anyway and now we won’t have those enforcement mechanisms. American businesses and workers will be disadvantaged."

Levin said the House could take up both bills in September, but there are only a handful of legislative days in that session before Congress goes home to campaign, so there’s little likelihood the bills can get done then.

"Essentially, the Republicans are putting it off until after the election," Levin said.

Republicans, meanwhile, blame the Obama administration for the delay.

Michael Steele, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), told The Cable Tuesday evening that the administration failed to do the spade work on Capitol Hill to lobby for the trade bill.

"We were waiting for the administration to get engaged on something they said they supported," said Steele. "They have to do something to build support among members to move this."

"They’re just looking for a rationale for their inability to come to a conclusion," Levin responded.

One key actor in this dispute is House Foreign Affairs Committee member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who never supported the trade bill and was engaged in a negotiation over the Magnitsky Act. The House version of the Magnitsky bill applied only to Russia, while the Senate version, which the administration favored, was broadened to apply to all countries with human rights violators.

"I oppose granting PNTR for Russia because it would be yet another concession to a regime that abuses the human rights of its citizens and undermines U.S. interests around the globe," Ros-Lehtinen told The Cable. "Whether or not the PNTR bill is considered, it is important that the House pass the Magnitsky human rights legislation in order to hold Russia accountable for its shameful actions."

There was a lot of scrambling on Capitol Hill late last week to try to work out a deal to move both bills before the recess. Some proposed adding a resolution in support of Georgia to help nervous Republicans feel better about passing the trade bill.

But those negotiations ultimately petered out.

"A deal was never seriously in the works and the bill realistically had no chance of going forward. The clock just ran out. The votes were just never there," one senior House staffer said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill in the Senate, told The Cable he was frustrated by the delay but unable to do anything about it.

"We delay the impact of WTO for American companies and we delay an important human rights bill," he said. "But I can’t control the House."

For the human rights community, the delay hurts American credibility and effectiveness in dealing with Russia.

"The administration has not done a good job in pushing PNTR, and its continued opposition to Magnitsky has severely complicated the problem," said Freedom House President David Kramer. "The Congress needs to send a strong message that gross human rights abuses in Russia such as the murder of Sergei Magnitsky will incur real consequences. I worry that Putin will interpret this delay as a victory."