July 19, 2012
Republicans and Russia
The House would help Putin if it kills a trade bill.
Who says Congress never does anything? On Wednesday the Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously to expand trade with Russia while including an important human-rights codicil. If reluctant House Republicans now act, Vladimir Putin will have something to think about.
The Senate bill establishes permanent normal trade relations with Russia, which is needed if the U.S. is going to take advantage of the Kremlin's decision to join the World Trade Organization next month. But the bill also bans officials of any country implicated in human-rights abuses from travelling to or banking in the U.S.
The latter part of the bill grew out of legislation introduced by Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin in 2010 to sanction those responsible for the death of corruption whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Moscow police custody in 2009. Except in limited circumstances, the State Department would be obliged to make public the black list.
The White House worked hard to scotch or dilute the Magnitsky Act, which is loathed by Mr. Putin. But amid bipartisan Senate support and business backing for the trade bill, the Obama Administration has resigned itself to the package deal.
Now the problem is House Republicans, who claim to be and usually are free traders. Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp hasn't introduced a bill to establish normal trade relations, and he sounds reluctant to include the Magnitsky sections. He says he wants a "clean" trade bill unencumbered by anything else. Yet he knows that a trade bill is unlikely to pass the Senate without Magnitsky attached.
Republican distaste for the Russian regime isn't hard to understand. President Putin has cracked down again on his domestic opponents and propped up Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Some Republicans may also not wish to do the Democratic White House any favors, even though this bill is a true bipartisan compromise.
Yet GOP leaders and freshmen alike should consider that Mr. Putin would be only too happy if they blocked the legislation. Permanent normal trade relations with Russia is principally an advantage for American companies. Russia doesn't care all that much. The Kremlin might even like the excuse to disadvantage U.S. investors under WTO cover.
Above all, Mr. Putin wants to stop the Magnitsky Act, which is supported by Russia's democratic opposition and which shows Mr. Putin that the American people also oppose his Bonapartism. Ahead of the debate in Congress, the Kremlin stirred up anti-Americanism and threatened retaliation. Adopting Magnitsky is the appropriate response.
Michigan's Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means and often a protectionist, on Wednesday urged Mr. Camp to introduce an identical version of the Senate bill in the House. Good idea. If the Republican Chairman moves fast in coming days, Congress can pocket this double victory before the summer recess.
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