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Russia Trade Bill Still Faces Obstacle in Senate

Legislation to normalize trade relations with Russia faces one more hurdle before it can become law. The bill, which the House passed overwhelmingly last week, still lacks a clear path in the Senate, due to a disagreement over accompanying human rights language.

The legislation includes provisions, inspired by the death of attorney and anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian jailers, to sanction human rights abusers, including those responsible for Magnitsky’s death. It would require the president to generate a list of human rights violators, whose assets would be frozen and U.S. visas revoked.

The House version (HR 6156), however, is limited only to Russia, while the Senate measure (S 3406) would apply the sanctions to human rights abusers anywhere in the world.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., the author and lead champion of the original Magnitsky bill, has been adamant that the final legislation should be global in application. His support, and that of other co-sponsors of his Magnitsky bill, is key to Senate passage of the broader legislation.

“It’s a stronger bill, and more defensible, by making it global because you speak to human rights rather than targeting one specific episode,” Cardin said last week.

Making the human rights sanctions international, rather than singling out Russia, might help ease tensions with Moscow, which is up in arms over the Magnitsky law and has threatened to reciprocate diplomatically. But Cardin said that is not his main concern.

He argued that Jackson-Vanik, the name for an amendment to a 1974 law that currently restricts trade with Russia, “was clearly inspired by events in the Soviet Union, but it was global.”

Global human rights sanctions, however, could create all sorts of unintended consequences and diplomatic headaches in dealings with China, allies in South and Central Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

With Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization in August, the United States is eligible for preferential access to Russian markets. But it first needs to lift Jackson-Vanik, and a bipartisan group of human rights advocates in both chambers have insisted that human rights language accompany such legislation.

Business groups are eager for the United States to normalize trade relations with Russia without delay.

The Business Roundtable issued a statement within an hour of the House’s 365-43 vote on Nov. 17 urging the Senate to “approve the House-passed bill as soon as possible.”

“Russia has roughly 142 million consumers and is the world’s sixth-largest economy in terms of purchasing power, offering much potential for American businesses,” the group noted. And it highlighted the fact that of all the WTO members, the United States is the only one not “fully benefitting from the market-opening concessions Russia made as part of its WTO membership.”

The push for speedy action from the business community increases the pressure for compromise. Cardin said last week that he planned to continue to talk with key members and make his pitch.

He points the finger at House Republican leaders for the continued standoff, saying it was his understanding that they were the ones who refused to budge from the House language. “The Democratic leadership told me they would support the Senate bill,” he said.

Ultimately, Cardin will need the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the Senate Democratic leadership, which will decide what form of the bill to bring to the floor, possibly next week.

“I certainly want to see a bill passed, so I’ll be working in a very constructive way,” Cardin said.

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