WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Republican lawmaker pressed President Barack Obama to intensify efforts to win approval of a controversial trade bill with Russia and said separate human rights legislation might be needed to help round up votes.
“It is time for the White House to get out front on this issue,” Dave Camp, chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
With Russia set to enter the World Trade Organization by late July or August, the Obama administration has identified passage of “permanent normal trade relations” - or PNTR - with Russia as one of its top trade priorities for the year.
But Camp, who announced plans to hold a hearing on the legislation in June, said the Obama administration has not engaged “strongly enough” to overcome resistance in Congress to passing the bill, which is also a top priority for U.S. business groups.
With a major push from the White House, “it’s possible” the bill could be passed by the August recess, Camp said. However, some trade policy analysts think the hot-button issue could be delayed until after the U.S. elections in November.
Representative Sander Levin, a senior Democrat, said Camp’s plan for a hearing was “long overdue” because the Democratic-led Senate was already preparing legislation “to address outstanding issues with regard to normalizing trade relations with Russia.”
The U.S. Trade Representative’s office said Obama and other administration’s official have “repeatedly” called for action on the bill and said it “looked forward to working with Congress on this important step for American businesses and workers.”
Unless Congress approves PNTR by revoking a Cold War-era provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, Russia would be entitled under WTO rules to deny U.S. exporters tariff concessions it made to join the world trade body.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment passed in 1974 to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate is contrary to WTO rules, which requires members to provide normal trade relations with each other on an “unconditional” basis. In addition, Russia has been judged in compliance with the emigration provisions since 1994.
Camp noted the PNTR legislation does not require the United States to lower any of its own tariffs on imports from Russia. However, many U.S. lawmakers are reluctant to pass any legislation that appears to be doing a favor for Moscow.
“Russia continues to have its skeptics on Capitol Hill, and whispering presidents inadvertently heard around the world have not made our task any easier,” Camp said.
He was referring to Obama’s private comment to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he would have more “flexibility” on missile defense after his re-election in November.
The private aside was inadvertently caught by an open microphone, creating an opening for Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, who expressed alarm Obama would offer reassurances to “our number one geopolitical foe.”
Romney’s campaign website elaborates on the candidate’s concerns about Russia and does not mention where Romney stands on PNTR. A campaign spokeswoman has not replied to emailed questions about Romney’s position on the issue.
Many Republicans and Democrats want to attach new human rights legislation to any bill that grants PNTR. The so-called Magnitsky bill would deny visas and freeze assets of Russian officials deemed guilty of human rights abuses.
Russia strongly objects to the legislation, a point underscored by Russia’s ambassador to the United States earlier this week and repeated by Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich at a weekly briefing on Thursday.
“Efforts by certain forces in the U.S. Congress to resolve the real issue of removing anachronistic legislation from the Cold War era by putting forth claims addressed to our country and links to the human rights sphere are unacceptable,” he said.
Passage of such a law “would negatively affect Russian-American relations, which have gained a positive dynamic in recent years,” Lukashevich said, adding that it would create an “unnecessary irritant.”
“We hope the American side fully understands this,” he said.
Camp said he has not endorsed the Magnitsky bill yet, but acknowledged some version of the human rights legislation may be needed to help pass the trade bill.
“We’re still assessing that,” Camp said. “But it may very likely be part of, but not a condition, of PNTR.”
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Russia; editing by Neil Stempleman and MOhammad Zargham