WASHINGTON — The House showed some bipartisan cooperation Friday by voting overwhelmingly to end Soviet-era trade restrictions so that American companies and farmers can take advantage of Russia’s expanding and more open markets.
But Moscow reacted angrily to a provision that punishes Russian officials involved in human rights violations, threatening to increase tensions between the two countries at a delicate time. “A defiantly unfriendly and provocative attack,” the Russian Foreign Ministry branded it and promised “a tough response.”
The Obama administration supports the legislation, which now goes to the Senate, where the Democratic leadership has indicated it will consider the measure promptly. The House passed it by a 365-43 vote.
The vote to establish permanent normal trade relations was a priority for American businesses concerned that they were being left behind as Europe and China move into Russia’s market of 140 million consumers.
Russia joined the World Trade Organization in August, and Moscow is now required to lower tariffs and take other market-opening measures. But unless Congress voted to eliminate a 1974 trade restriction and establish permanent trade relations, the U.S. would be alone among 156 WTO members in failing to benefit from those new trade rules.
The trade bill, unlike bilateral free-trade treaties, requires no concessions from the U.S. side. With passage, U.S. companies and farmers would see lower tariffs, better protections for intellectual property and greater access to Russia’s service market and would be able to go to the WTO to resolve disputes.
The administration and economists have predicted that U.S. exports of goods and services, currently at $11 billion, could double in five years if trade relations were normalized.
The legislation stalled before the U.S. election as lawmakers shied away from voting for a measure that might appear to be aiding Russia at a time when President Vladimir Putin’s government had become increasingly hostile. Many members of Congress were mollified by the addition to the bill of a measure that punishes Russian officials involved in human rights violations.
The vote came on the third anniversary of the death of Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison after allegedly being tortured.
“It is very gratifying that the first item out of the chute after the election is something we will be able to do in a bipartisan way,” said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.
Differences remain between the House and the Senate on the human rights proposal. The House bill imposes visa and financial restrictions on Russian officials linked to human rights abuses. The Senate version would broaden that to human rights violators around the world.
Numerous House members said they would not have voted for the trade bill without inclusion of the human rights proposal. “The issue that concerns me and many members is not trade but human rights,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Ensuring that American companies and workers can compete in the growing Russian market is essential to increasing U.S. exports, growing our economy and creating American jobs,” said Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar Inc., and chairman of the Business Roundtable’s international engagement committee.
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