Business Groups Pressing For Russia Trade Bill During Lame Duck

Posted September 24, 2012 at 12:00am

The departure of Congress until after the elections removes one barrier to normalizing trade relations with Russia, but that also raises a new hurdle for backers of legislation that’s heavily favored by the business world.

Thorny political issues will carry less weight in a lame-duck session, but a bill establishing permanent normalized trade relations also will have to compete for attention during a chaotic postelection period that will be focused on large tax and spending issues. Although supporters remain optimistic, the path to enactment will require the sort of cooperation that’s been in short supply in Congress, even for a measure that has wide support.

“I think there’s a very good chance of it happening in the lame duck,” said Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We just need to all hold hands together and get this done.”

To the U.S. Chamber and other groups, including the Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers, it’s past time to normalize U.S. trade relations with Russia. The country formally joined the World Trade Organization in August, and the United States cannot fully access the lowered trade barriers until Congress repeals Jackson-Vanik, a Cold War-era amendment (PL 93-618) to trade law that targets communist countries that restricted Jewish emigration.

Supporters of lifting Jackson-Vanik, which include the Obama administration, say it would boost the economy by fostering more U.S. exports.

The United States exported roughly $11 billion in goods to Russia last year, and business groups say that could double or triple now that Russia is a WTO member. According to the President’s Export Council, U.S. firms account for only 4.5 percent of Russia’s imports, while Europe holds a 40 percent share and China another 16 percent. Without congressional action, the business community warns, the United States could fall further behind.

Business groups worked unsuccessfully to have Congress take up the measure before recessing. Although bills were easily approved by the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance panels in July, party leaders were in no rush to bring the legislation to the floor because of opposition from organized labor and questions surrounding Russia’s human rights record.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had suggested he would call the bill up earlier this month under a suspension of the rules, an expedited procedure that requires a two-thirds majority vote. But some Democrats wavered because of the labor opposition. House Republicans, meanwhile, did not want to pass the bill without solid Democratic support for fear of appearing soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has come under harsh criticism, particularly from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Some supporters of the bill believe such concerns will fade after the election.

“The political considerations shouldn’t be driving the train at that point,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council. “I’m optimistic.”

Business groups have held more than 300 meetings on Capitol Hill to build support for repealing Jackson-Vanik, and they plan to continue their push in the weeks ahead.

Still, there is real disappointment among business advocates that Congress did not act before the coming lame-duck session, when lawmakers will be consumed with addressing the expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts (PL 107-16; PL 08-27) and the automatic budget cuts required by last year’s agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

“We were hoping to avert this scenario, just because of the uncertainty in lame-duck scenarios,” said Wenk. Last week, senior lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reiterated their interest in passing the bill after Congress returns in November.

“I am very optimistic,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee. “The votes are here in the House, and the votes are there, I believe, in the Senate.”

“It’s one of the things we’d be interested in getting done,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York. The Senate’s third-ranking Democrat said he would support the measure if it has “the right safeguards.”

That likely includes the human rights provisions known as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act that were included in the legislation. Although that is widely expected, the House and Senate have produced different versions (HR 4405; S 1039), and it is unclear which language will ultimately be attached.