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Russia trade, human rights bill advances in U.S. Congress

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill that would upgrade U.S. trade relations with Russia while also punishing Russian officials for human rights violations cleared a legislative hurdle on Tuesday on its way to expected approval in the House of Representatives later this week.

The House Rules Committee approved a plan to combine legislation to establish "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR) with Russia with a separate human rights measure strongly opposed by Moscow.

The full House is expected to vote on Thursday on the plan to merge the bills and vote on Friday on the combined package, a House Republican aide said.

Representative Kevin Brady, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee's trade subcommittee, said the trade and human rights package had broad bipartisan support.

"We can't miss any opportunity to create jobs and support our exporters," Brady told the rules panel.

Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said he supported the bill and highlighted provisions that put pressure on President Barack Obama's administration to make sure Russia abides by the rules of the World Trade Organization, which it joined in August.

Congress has to approve PNTR to ensure U.S. companies receive all of the market-opening benefits of Russia's entry in WTO.

Doing that requires lawmakers to lift a Cold War-era provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment that tied favorable U.S. tariffs on Russian goods to the rights of Jews in the former Soviet Union to emigrate.

The 1974 amendment is mostly symbolic now because Republican and Democratic administrations have judged Russia to be in compliance since the 1990s.

But it remains on the books, at odds with WTO rules that require countries to provide each other with normal trade relations on an unconditional basis.

Many U.S. lawmakers are reluctant to remove the Jackson-Vanik amendment without passing new human rights legislation to keep pressure on Moscow.

The new measure is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian jail in 2009.

Russia has denounced the provision, which directs the Obama administration to deny visas to Russian officials involved in the detention, abuse or death of Magnitsky and to freeze any assets they might have in U.S. banks.

The bill also empowers the administration to punish other human rights abusers in Russia and allows certain members of Congress to suggest individuals to be hit with the sanctions.

Although the measure is intended to "name and shame" Russian officials, the president can keep any names secret if he determines that is in the U.S. national security interest.

A similar bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee takes a broader approach that would allow sanctions on human rights violators anywhere in the world.

Congressional aides said they expect the Senate to take up the House version of the bill rather than insist on the broader package. The Senate could vote on the bill before the end of the month, one Senate aide said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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