The Cable

Senate fight coming over Russian human rights bill

The Senate is set to do battle over whether a bill to sanction human rights violators will be limited to Russia or be applied to all countries around the world. The House last week passed by a huge bipartisan majority of 365-43 the Russia and Moldova Jackson- Vanik Repeal Act of 2012, which allows Russia ...

The Senate is set to do battle over whether a bill to sanction human rights violators will be limited to Russia or be applied to all countries around the world.

The House last week passed by a huge bipartisan majority of 365-43 the Russia and Moldova Jackson- Vanik Repeal Act of 2012, which allows Russia to obtain Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and removes human rights sanctions first applied to Russia in 1974.

The bill contained within it the House version of the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability and Rule of Law Act of 2012, which would set in place new penalties for human rights violators in Russia. That bill is named after the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after allegedly being tortured by Russian authorities.

The joining of the Magnitsky bill with the bill to grant Russia PNTR status is meant to ally lawmakers’ concerns regarding the ongoing deterioration of human rights conditions in Russia. But the Senate version of the Magnitsky bill would allow sanctioning of human rights violators in all countries, not just Russia.

That broadened scope is at the center of the fight over the bill coming soon to the Senate floor.

The floor fight pits several senators who want to maintain the global scope of the Magnitsky bill against another group of senators who want to keep the bill specific to Russia. The Obama administration agrees with the latter group, as does House Republican leadership.

"I absolutely want it to be global," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the original sponsor of the Senate version of the Magnitsky bill, told The Cable. "This is a human rights tool that we have available to advance against all international human rights abusers."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has pledged to bring up the bill during this lame-duck session of Congress, Cardin said. Cardin hasn’t decided yet whether to offer an amendment to the House bill to make it global, but Cardin said his main priority is "to get it done."

Cardin is joined by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-KY). "I very strongly believe the Magnistky bill should be global, because when human rights are violated by anybody in any country, we shouldn’t just single out one country," Levin said.

If the Senate modifies the House version of the bill, some on the Hill worry, the House won’t have the time or enthusiasm to take up the new Senate version this year. But Levin said he hopes the Senate version of the Magnitsky bill would be substituted for the House version on the Senate floor. Under that scenario, the House can then pass the Senate version, all before the holiday break.

"It doesn’t take long for the House to act. They act by majority rule over there," Levin said.

Levin may be overestimating the House’s appetite for such a move. Multiple Congressional aides told The Cable that Kyl went to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to discuss the possibility of the House taking up the Magnistky bill again and Cantor told Kyl in no uncertain terms that the House leadership does not want to do it.

Kyl declined to confirm that exchange, but emphasized that he supports a global version of the Magnitsky bill.

"I would prefer to see it global because human rights are human rights, they are not just Russian citizens’ rights," Kyl said.

The senators who want to keep the Magnitsky bill Russia-specific, according to several Hill aides, include Reid, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), whose priority is to make sure that Russia’s upgrade to PNTR status and the repeal of Jackson-Vanik go forward. Russia joined the WTO in August, but U.S. businesses seeking to export to Russia cannot take full advantage of that until the Jackson-Vanik repeal goes through.

"I think it should be Russia-specific because that’s where the issue arose; it didn’t arise in some other country," Baucus told The Cable.

Many in the Senate also worry that a global Magnitsky bill would be unwieldy, costly to implement, and could cause friction between the United States and several governments in countries where human rights abuses take place, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, among others.

The Obama administration, in comments on the bill sent to Congress and reviewed by The Cable, stated clearly that it does not want the bill to have global reach. Nor do officials actually want the bill to be focused on all Russian human rights violators.

"Although the administration strongly believes this bill should be focused solely on Magnitsky — the administration prefers the formulation in [the House bill] to the overly broad scope of [the Senate bill]," the administration comments stated.

The White House also issued a public statement of administration policy expressing strong support of the House version of the PNTR-Magnitsky bill combination.

According to Cardin, the administration was never enthusiastic about the Magntisky bill in the first place, and therefore prefers the weakest version of the human rights legislation it can secure.

"I’m not sure they wanted Magnitsky at all," Cardin said.

Some in the State Department originally thought that making the Magnitsky bill global would be a way to soften expected Russian retaliation, which could include greater persecution of foreign NGOs struggling to operate inside Russia.

"The worst reason to make it global is to pacify the Russians," one congressional aide said. "They will find a way to be pissed one way or the other."

The clock is ticking on this session of Congress, however, and many on Capitol Hill worry that if those who want to globalize the bill get their way, the net effect will be to delay any chance of passing Magnitsy or Jackson-Vanik repeal until next year.

"At this point, if you try to do anything but have the Senate swallow the House bill, there’s just not enough time," the aide said.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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