Legislation granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Russia, with benefits accruing to U.S. companies in that market, has strong bipartisan and bicameral support in the U.S. Congress and could be passed during the next two weeks before legislators leave Washington to concentrate on the November election.
Industry and legislative supporters of the bill see a window to get the legislation done now. There will be a lame duck session of Congress after the election, but other issues such as the budget deficit could crowd out the calendar.
Russia joined the World Trade Organization on Aug. 22 after 18 years of negotiations over what types of reforms it must take to open its economy to foreign trade.
As the ninth-largest economy in the world with a population of 143 million, Russia is a target-rich environment for outside companies seeking new business opportunities. Russia's accession to the WTO means it will immediately slash duties on most goods to 7 percent from 15 percent. In the case of light commercial vehicles, for example, the import tariff falls to 15 percent from 25 percent.
But U.S. companies are still subject to the higher tariffs because of a 38-year-old human rights law intended to pressure the Soviet Union to allow free emigration of Soviet Jews and victims of religious persecution. Under the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, Russia was denied Permanent Normal Trade Status (PNTR) and requires annual certification by the president that it's meeting the emigration requirements to receive full trading rights with the United States. Russia has not imposed the travel restrictions in two decades and every president since Clinton in 1992 has issued the certification.
Under WTO rules, all member countries must grant every other member unconditional "most-favored nation" status. By granting PNTR on a temporary basis the United States is not in compliance with its WTO obligations and Russia can deny U.S. companies the tariff and non-tariff benefits enjoyed by 154 other countries since it joined the international trade body.
Three issues could complicate efforts to get the Russia trade legislation through Congress. First, is a parallel human rights bill introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland earlier this year following the death in prison of a government dissident that would freeze assets and block visas of individuals who commit gross human-rights violations.
Lawmakers in the House are trying to complete the "Magnitsky" bill - named after the Russian lawyer who died after exposing a massive tax-fraud scheme - this week so they can vote on the PNTR bill next week and send it to the Senate for action. One possible stumbling block is that some Senate advocates of the Magnitsky bill want it to apply globally to all countries, while others want it narrowly written to only deal with Russian human rights.
Second, Russia's support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and moves to block international action in the United Nations to contain the civil war there that has cost thousands of civilian lives has angered many legislators and could factor into some members' votes. Some lawmakers who are critical of Russia's relationship with Syria argue that voting to deny PNTR won't make a difference in Syria and will only end up hurting U.S. companies.
The third issue is how to schedule the bill for a vote.
House leaders could schedule a vote under regular order, which only requires a majority vote to pass, or they could put it on the "suspension calendar" under which normal procedural rules are suspended. The second path requires a super majority, or two-thirds, support to pass the chamber.
The last time a PNTR bill went to vote under suspension of the rules was in 2006 and the vote for Vietnam failed.
Most Capitol Hill operatives would prefer to move the trade bill under regular procedures, which allow the minority party to offer amendments and submit a motion to recommit the bill for a vote.
One House staff member on the Republican side recently said PNTR should be able to pass with the higher suspension threshold given the strong support from both parties in Congress and the president. If a two-thirds vote isn't possible, then the Democrats should give up their right to use the motion to recommit because it is a political tool simply designed to embarrass the majority. Under House rules, the motion to recommit basically gives members of the minority party opposed to a piece of legislation, one last opportunity to try and add amendments or send a bill back to committee for further study.
Eliminating the motion to recommit as a factor would make Republicans more willing to follow regular order for a vote, the staff person said. - Eric Kulisch