Supporters of a bill to normalize trade relations with Russia had hoped to secure enactment of the legislation before Congress left town for its month-long August recess, but the effort fell short and they have now focused on the two weeks Congress plans to be in session during the month of September. However, the schedule in both chambers is already bursting at the seams with politically charged items.
Russia will assume full World Trade Association (WTO) membership in August. At that time, other WTO members will begin to benefit from preferential access to Russian markets stemming from the reduction in Russia's import tariff levels. U.S. exporters will not be able to take advantage of the lower duties, however, until Congress passes legislation to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade law (P.L. 93-618). Legislation to accomplish that has cleared committees in both the House (H.R. 6156) and the Senate (S. 3265), receiving unanimous approval in each case.
Progress on the Russia PNTR legislation has slowed, however, as a result of disagreements over the language of human rights provisions that would be attached to the final version of the bill. House and Senate versions of the so-called Magnitsky Bill would allow the imposition of certain sanctions on individuals that commit gross human rights violations, but their approaches differ. The House version limits its scope to Russian violators, while the Senate is more expansive, potentially targeting violators anywhere in the world. A compromise needs to be worked out, as House leadership has made it clear that the version passed by the House has to be acceptable to the Senate. The human rights language is critical to garnering enough votes for the bill's passage in both houses.
While organized labor has voiced opposition to the bill, the business community has weighed in forcefully in favor, and general support for the measure is strong, including within the Obama Administration. Efforts to secure passage in September are underway, but given that Congress will only be in session for rougly ten business days, the legislation may have to wait until after the election.
House leaders have signaled a willingness to take up a bill when Congress returns in September, however. After leaving for recess, Majority Leader Cantor issued the following statement, "Upon our return from the August constituent work period, the House is prepared to take up under suspension of the rules a bill to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to Russia, combined with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, should the Senate and president commit to support passage before the end of September."
So while difficulties remain in reconciling differences in the bill, along with the pressures of the clock, at least it appears the measure is still in play.