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Senate confirms Pagan in USTR post tasked with addressing Russia’s WTO status

Lawmakers readying legislation on Russia's trade access

House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., is working on legislation that would suspend Russia's most-favored-nation trade status.
House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., is working on legislation that would suspend Russia's most-favored-nation trade status. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate confirmed Maria L Pagán on Thursday to be deputy trade representative at the World Trade Organization, a post where she could take on the added duty of trying to convince the international body to suspend Russia’s membership.

Pagán, currently the deputy general counsel for the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, easily won approval with a 80-19 vote. She is a veteran of the trade agency and has nearly 30 years of experience in a number of government positions. As the deputy trade representative, she will be the U.S. ambassador to the WTO in Geneva.

During her Oct. 26, 2021, nomination hearing, Pagán said she would take a can-do approach to achieving changes to make the organization more responsive and nimble.

“As deputy general counsel at USTR, my job is to get things done, and I will bring that can-do approach and attitude to Geneva. We need to be creative; not just focus on the areas where we disagree, but find the areas where we can agree,” she said.

Under legislation designed to penalize Russia for invading Ukraine, the U.S Trade Representative’s Office would be directed to persuade WTO members to end favorable trade treatment for Russian goods and explore ways the WTO could withdraw membership status from Russia. The Senate bill also would call for the trade agency to seek similar treatment of Belarus, a Russian ally aiding the attack on Ukraine. Belarus is in the process of joining the WTO.

The WTO generally operates by consensus and requires all 164 members to agree to an action. Without some alternative method, Russia could block any effort to suspend its membership. Member nations are required to negotiate and provide most-favored-nation status to each other. The U.S. did so with Russia when Moscow joined the organization in 2012.

The House bill by Reps. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., in addition to seeking action at the WTO would ban U.S. imports of Russian coal, oil, gas and other petroleum products. The bill would also give the president the authority to issue a waiver on any of the products if the White House determines importing the product is in the national interest. The House and Senate could reject the decision by each passing a joint resolution of disapproval.

The House overwhelmingly approved the bill Wednesday by a 414-17 vote. 

An earlier bill would have removed most-favored-nation status, also known as permanent normal trade relations, from Russia and subjected products to higher U.S. duties where applicable. But Blumenauer said Tuesday that the White House worried about the provision and potential response from some members of the international coalition President Joe Biden has assembled to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Russia.

Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also indicated the White House had concerns, but he and Finance ranking member Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, filed legislation that would include the withdrawal of most-favored-nation status for Russia along with the oil ban. The bill also would end a U.S. waiver that gives Belarus favorable trade status while it is going through the WTO membership process.

The language in the Senate bill was negotiated last weekend by Wyden, Crapo and House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., and ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas.

Neal, who voted for the House bill, said he thinks differences between the House-passed legislation and the Senate bill can be resolved next week.

“I assume that we will address the PNTR issue hopefully as near to next week as we can. I’m all in on it,” Neal said, said using the acronym for permanent normal trade relations.

Neal only smiled and winked when asked if the White House is now open to ending Russia’s favored trade treatment.

“When Congress returns to Washington next week, we will act decisively, in a bipartisan manner, to suspend permanent normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus,” he said in a statement Wednesday. 

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