WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate panel on Tuesday postponed by one week a vote on a measure to penalize Russian officials for human rights abuses, a bipartisan bill opposed by Russia and facing resistance from the Obama administration.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had been scheduled to vote on the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act” at a meeting on Tuesday afternoon. But the bill was taken off the agenda after Democratic Senator Jim Webb requested a delay.
“Senator Webb supports the premise of the Magnitsky Act, but has concerns about some of the language in the current draft and has asked that the bill be held over so that he can more closely examine it,” Webb’s spokesman, Will Jenkins, said. He gave no details.
Democratic Senator John Kerry, the committee chairman, said the bill would be taken up at the panel’s next business meeting on June 26.
The legislation is named for a 37-year-old anti-corruption lawyer who worked for the equity fund Hermitage Capital in Moscow. His 2009 death after a year in Russian jails spooked investors and blackened Russia’s image abroad.
The measure would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky’s death, as well as those of other human rights abusers in Russia. It passed a House of Representatives committee this month, but no action has been taken in the Senate.
Russia has warned it will retaliate against the United States if the bill goes through. Changes have been made in the Senate version that would water down the bill at the request of President Barack Obama’s administration, Senate aides told Reuters. The changes included letting the U.S. government keep secret some names on the list of abusers.
The Senate version would also broaden the list to include abusers of human rights “anywhere in the world,” a provision some say could keep Russia from feeling singled out, but would also be difficult to implement.
The Obama administration says it understands the concerns of the bill’s sponsors about rights abuses. But it says the bill is unnecessary as the administration has already imposed visa restrictions on some Russians thought to have been involved in Magnitsky’s death - but it has kept their names quiet.
The White House is anxious to keep the push for sanctions on rights abusers in Russia from slowing down efforts to get congressional approval of “permanent normal trade relations” with Russia this year. Those efforts are also under threat by lawmakers unhappy about Russia’s support for the Syrian government in its bloody crackdown on a revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Magnitsky bill was discussed on Monday between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting at a G20 summit in Mexico, U.S. envoy to Russia Michael McFaul told reporters there.
“The actual facts of the case in the wrongful death were discussed, as well as the legislation,” McFaul said.
Magnitsky was jailed in Russia in 2008 on charges of tax evasion and fraud. His colleagues say those were fabricated by police investigators whom he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax returns. The Kremlin’s own human rights council said in 2011 he was probably beaten to death.
Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said he was not concerned by the delay in the committee’s vote, because the bill had strong bipartisan support. He brushed aside a reporter’s query about whether the delay was engineered to please the Obama administration.
“We’ve been working very closely with the Obama administration,” Cardin said. “I am very confident that they are not delaying our action. Doesn’t mean they’re supporting our action.”
Cardin defended the inclusion of a “classified annex” provision that would allow the administration to keep some names secret. The bill would still require a public list of rights abusers, and “if there is a national security interest that requires a classified annex, the administration has to justify that” to lawmakers, he said.
Republican Representative Kevin Brady, chairman of a key trade committee in the House, said on Tuesday that passing the Magnitsky bill may be necessary to win approval of permanent normal trade relations with Russia, because of lawmakers’ concerns about human rights there.
Brady said passage of the trade bill would be a “hard lift,” but was doable this summer if the Obama administration pushed hard enough.
The House Ways and Means Committee is holding a hearing on Wednesday to hear from administration and industry witnesses that favor PNTR for Russia.
Additional reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney