House passes Russian trade deal, but Moscow isn't happy
WASHINGTON -- Ignoring threats of retaliation from Moscow, the House of Representatives passed a long-delayed trade deal with Russia on Friday, adding language aimed at cracking down on human rights abuses.
The agreement, a priority for President Obama and business groups, would permanently normalize trade relations with Russia, allowing the United States to increase ties with a nation that boasts 140 million consumers.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, the House voted 365-43 to approve the bill. It now goes to the Senate, where final passage is expected.
As part of the deal, the House agreed to repeal a 1974 law authored by former Democratic Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington state that had restricted trade with the former Soviet Union because it wasn't allowing Jews to emigrate.
Supporters said that was no longer an issue and it was time to normalize permanent trade relations with Russia. Currently, trade is allowed on a year-by-year basis if the president certifies that Russia is complying with the 1974 law.
"Today's Russia is not yesterday's Soviet Union," said Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, who's a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The House voted to replace the law with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, named after a 37-year-old tax lawyer who was tortured in a Russian prison after exposing the largest tax fraud in the country's history. The new measure would freeze the assets of any individuals responsible for participating in Magnitsky's detention or of any others responsible for gross violations of human rights against whistleblowers. The vote came on the third anniversary of Magnitsky's death.
It drew a strong rebuke from the Russian government, which said the United States had no business focusing on Russia's human rights record because of its own poor performance in housing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
"We will have to react, and it will be a tough reaction," The Moscow Times quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich as saying ahead of Friday's vote.
The vote marked the first major act of Congress' lame-duck session, with Democrats and Republicans alike hopeful that it would set the stage for members working together more.
"I hope that some of this rubs off on some of the bills that we're going to be considering in the days and weeks to come, but this really is how this House of Representatives should be run," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
"Bipartisanship is breaking out all over around here," observed Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. Like most others, he dismissed the threats of Russian retaliation, saying, "If that's the policy of their government, that will be the policy of their government."
The deal comes after Russia formally joined the World Trade Organization this summer.
Backers said the pact would allow the United States to capitalize on reduced tariffs for many goods, including airplanes. With duties on commercial planes set to be slashed in half, Boeing, which has its largest manufacturing plants in Washington state, said in a statement that it expected to compete for more business: Russian airlines are gearing up to buy nearly 900 commercial airplanes valued at about $100 billion during the next 20 years, the company said.
Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, called the legislation "a no-cost job creator" and said it would be a boon to his home state of Washington, which ranked fifth among the states in exports to Russia last year.
Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, predicted that the agreement would double, or perhaps even triple, U.S. exports to Russia within five years. Last year, U.S. exports to Russia hit $11 billion, with the state of Texas leading the way.
Some were pessimistic, however.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who voted against the bill, predicted the biggest export will be U.S. jobs and that the same trade abuses the United States is experiencing in China will be replicated in Russia."This is a recipe for more job losses," he said.