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House gives Russia trade bill strong backing after Zelenskyy speech

Bill would end Russia's most-favored-nation tariff status

Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., said the House answered the call of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky with passage of the bill. Zelenskyy spoke to Congress Wednesday.
Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., said the House answered the call of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky with passage of the bill. Zelenskyy spoke to Congress Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House on Thursday sent the Senate legislation that would revoke U.S. favorable tariff treatment of Russian goods as lawmakers search for ways to isolate and inflict economic pain on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

Ending the favored status for Russian and Belarusian products would apply higher tariffs to products in cases when the standard U.S. duty is higher.

The 424-8 vote moves the bill to the Senate, where there appears to be bipartisan support and an appetite to squeeze Russia. The action comes a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed members of Congress in a stirring virtual address.

The vote brought Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., to the floor, where they spoke strongly in support of the measure.

Ways and Means Chair Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said passing the bill under suspension would answer Zelenskyy’s call to take aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin. To pass, the bill needed a two-thirds majority vote.

“He pleaded for us to do more. With the legislation that stands before us at this hour, we intend to answer his call,” Neal said. “With the House passage of HR 7108 today, we will take that impactful step and place even greater economic pressure on Putin and his brutal regime.”

Concerted effort to punish Russia

The House vote comes after President Joe Biden announced on March 11 that the European Union and G-7 members also would withdraw most-favored-nation treatment for Russia and its ally Belarus. The coalition of countries pledged international cooperation to cut off Russian access to lenders such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  

Biden said he backed similar action by Congress and would sign legislation revoking most-favored-nation status, also known as permanent normal trade relations.

The administration has restricted sales of selected luxury items to Russian and Belarusian oligarchs and banned the import of Russian seafood, spirits such as vodka, and nonindustrial diamonds. The Treasury Department also is to issue guidance making it clear that any transactions in virtual or cryptocurrency are subject to the same Russia-related sanctions applied to traditional currency.

To give Biden time to secure international support for a coordinated effort, Pelosi had previously delayed action on legislation by Ways and Means member Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chair Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., to remove the favored nation status of Russia.

Doggett and Blumenauer went to the floor on March 9 with new legislation to ban U.S. imports of Russian coal, oil, gas and other petroleum products and to direct the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office to persuade individual WTO members to revoke their favorable trade treatment of Russia and to seek ways to have the WTO suspend Russia’s membership. The House overwhelmingly approved the bill with a 414-17 vote.

As a member of the WTO, the U.S. was required to negotiate terms for favorable treatment of Russian goods when it entered the international body on Aug. 22, 2012. The U.S. also has extended most-favored-nation treatment to Belarus, which is in the process of entering the WTO.

“Today, we have the opportunity to lead. We don’t take these steps lightly, but Russia’s aggression requires this approach,” Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said of passage of the legislation. He credited bipartisan public pressure on Biden for the president lending his support to the effort.   

While Neal and Brady agreed on the trade provisions, Brady said the bill’s inclusion of changes to a human rights law by the Foreign Affairs Committee “are unnecessarily vague.” Brady said he is confident there are senators who agree with him and will push to remove those changes.

Under the legislation, the president would have the authority until Jan. 1, 2024, to set by proclamation tariff rates that are higher than the standard rates known as Column 2 for imported products. The president also would have the authority to restore most-favored-nation tariff rates for specific products from Russia or Belarus after consulting with the trade committees and giving them a report that certifies that Russia or Belarus have met several conditions.

Congress would have the right to block either action by the president by passing joint resolutions of disapproval. The bill includes steps the chambers would take to override a presidential veto if necessary.

The bill also would direct the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office to work to persuade WTO members to suspend Russia’s membership and to stop the entry of Belarus into the trade body.

To win certification, Russia or Belarus must have reached an agreement on withdrawal of forces and ending of military action that Ukraine has accepted, present no military threat to any member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and acknowledge the Ukrainian people’s right to independently and freely choose their form of government.    

The trade bill also would amend and reauthorize a law known as the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to give the president authority to impose sanctions on individuals based on credible information that they have been directly or indirectly involved in serious human rights abuses.

Current or former government officials or subordinates acting on their behalf also would be subject to presidential sanctions if credible evidence shows direct or indirect engagement in acts such as bribery, corruption or violations of human rights. The president also could apply sanctions to governments involved in human rights abuses or corruption.   

The legislation also would repeal language that would sunset the authority to impose sanctions.

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