A ‘Who’s on First’ Blame Game on Stalled Russia Trade Bill

Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:30pm

It’s a priority of President Barack Obama’s, supported by top lawmakers in the Republican-led House, was reported out of the Senate Finance Committee unanimously weeks ago, and is a major ask by the business lobby.

But when Congress left town last week, neither chamber had voted on a bill to normalize trade relations with Russia.

The omission is even more significant because Russia will be joining the World Trade Organization on Aug. 22. To comply with WTO rules, the United States must pass legislation normalizing its trade relations with Russia, creating an urgency to pass the bill.

Other, small-bore international items like extending the African Growth and Opportunity Act and import sanctions on Myanmar sailed through the House with ease. So who dropped the ball on permanent normal trade relations status for Russia?

Democrats, led by House Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin (Mich.), quickly pointed to the Republicans for blame, saying divisions in the GOP Conference prompted House leadership to delay the bill.

Now Republicans are hitting back, arguing the Obama administration has been relatively disengaged, that Democrats are unwilling to say what level of support they could provide for the vote and that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has ignored requests to schedule a vote in the Senate.

Republicans “need to be assured that you’ve got the votes in the House and that the Senate will promptly pick it up. And we’re going to need those two elements — whether we could have done it this week or done it in September or in November. The quicker we get those the better,” said Kevin Brady, chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade.

“We’ve asked publicly, privately and every other direction for Sen. Reid to schedule a vote in the Senate so that we have a path forward,” the Texas Republican said.

Despite privately signaling the bill is a major administration priority, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has been relatively disengaged, Brady said.

“There’s nothing coordinated that I’m aware of,” he said. “Like most trade issues, this is a Cabinet-level effort. All hands on deck. Commerce, USTR, Defense, others. At least if we’re going to have strong bipartisan support in the House. And that’s not been the case.”

Democrats find the charges as convenient excuse-making to cover for an embarrassing failure.

“It’s Republicans’ job to get the bill through the House,” a Democratic aide said.

On Democratic support, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer predicted in a statement to Roll Call that the bill would pass with a “strong majority.”

“We must work together to get Russia PNTR done so American businesses aren’t disadvantaged. I’m confident that when Republicans schedule the bill, it will pass the House with a strong majority,” the Maryland Democrat said.

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously reported the bill July 18, combining a provision normalizing trade relations with a human rights bill that would sanction Russians responsible for the death of corruption whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp supports the Magnitsky bill but had been pushing for a “clean” PNTR bill that didn’t include it. After the Senate Finance Committee reported its bill, Camp said he would like to move on the issue but didn’t have a Democratic partner.

“I intend to have a bill introduced in the next few days and look forward to moving this important jobs bill through the committee on a bipartisan basis as soon as possible. I continue to work with the White House to find a Democratic cosponsor,” the Michigan Republican said.

The next day, July 19, the Wall Street Journal editorial page criticized Camp for stalling, saying House Republicans were hurting U.S. businesses and helping Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That morning, Camp called Levin, conceding ground on combining the Magnitsky provisions. Camp wouldn’t include it in the legislation reported by Ways and Means, as it was outside his committee’s jurisdiction, but he would support adding it at the Rules Committee.

On July 26, the Ways and Means Committee reported out the bill by voice vote, with one Democrat, Rep. Bill Pascrell (N.J.) opposed.

But Speaker John Boehner quickly said it was unlikely the bill would get a vote before the recess.

Democrats suspect Boehner didn’t want to distract from messaging on taxes, but the Ohio Republican put the onus on the president for moving the bill forward.

“If the president really thinks this is an important issue that we have to deal with, then maybe he ought to be out there making the case for it,” Boehner said later on July 26.

Then on Monday of the last week before the recess, organized labor objected to the legislation, with the United Steelworkers and the Communications Workers of America sending a letter to Members criticizing the bill.

Labor’s opposition softened Democratic support, worrying Republican supporters and eliminating the suspension calendar as an option for the bill, GOP aides say, which made it unlikely to fit in the last week before recess.

And the sniping has continued ever since.