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Russian trade bill lacks full support

Syria, Iran ties hold some back

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A pending deal to improve trade relations with Russia continues to simmer on the legislative back burner, as House Republicans this week blamed President Obama for failing to deliver Democratic support.

The administration and businesses have pushed Congress to approve "permanent normal trade relations" with Russia, saying that U.S. companies would be at a disadvantage otherwise now that Moscow has joined the World Trade Organization.

But some lawmakers have balked because of Russia's support for Iran and Syria. They also want assurances that Russia will improve its domestic human rights record before moving forward with any deal.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor earlier this summer said he was ready to bring up the trade agreement for a full vote on the chamber's "suspension calendar" typically reserved for noncontroversial legislation. But the fast-track procedure requires a two-thirds vote, meaning it needs significant bipartisan support, and the Virginia Republican said Tuesday that his plan now is on hold because of Democratic reluctance.

"Unfortunately, we don't see the bipartisan coalition we need ... in order to pass this," Mr. Cantor told reporters.

The majority leader also accused the president of not leaning on Democratic leaders enough on Capitol Hill to support it.

A day earlier, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, also said the situation is "little difficult right now" because the White House "has not put the effort [to] come up with the support that they said they would have."

"I'm waiting on the White House but we're prepared on our side to solve that," he told reporters.

Permanent normal trade relations bills for Russia already have passed House and Senate committees.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, while in Vladivostok, Russia, over the weekend to address the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum, voiced hope that Congress would move this month to upgrade trade relations with Russia.

But while Mrs. Clinton said the administration was working with Congress to lift the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment — Cold War-era legislation that has blocked normal trade privileges for Russia — she also raised concerns on Russia's approach to Syria and human rights, including "measures targeting people who have spoken out about Russia's democratic future."

"Domestic entrepreneurs and foreign investors alike understand that in the 21st century, political modernization can and does drive economic growth," she said. "We do believe that it's important to promote the cause of human rights here in Russia, and that members of Congress believe the same thing."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce calls the pact its top trade priority before Congress this year.

"By standing still on trade, America risks being left behind once again," said chamber President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue in an August statement. "Because of our inaction on [permanent normal trade relations with Russia], European and Asian companies have won a head start in the Russian market."

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would support legislation to upgrade U.S. trade relations with Russia only if Congress also passes a measure to go after Russian human rights violators, Reuters reported his campaign as saying last week.

Russia is the United States' 20th- largest goods trading partner, with $42.9 billion in total goods traded between the countries in 2011, the White House U.S. Trade Representative's Office says. The U.S. goods trade deficit with Russia was $26.3 billion last year, a 33.5 percent increase — or $6.6 billion — compared with 2010.

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