WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Wednesday headed toward a vote on legislation that would end four-decade-old trade restrictions that are blocking U.S. businesses from enjoying the benefits of a more open Russian market.
The final vote on Thursday was expected to show overwhelming support for legislation that also imposes sanctions on Russian human rights violators.
The legislation was welcomed by American businesses concerned about falling behind in the race to win shares of the Russian market but drew rebukes from Russian officials over the human rights part of the bill.
Senate approval of legislation to establish permanent, normal trade relations with Russia would send the measure to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The House passed the legislation last month on a 365-43 vote.
Russia on Aug. 22 formally entered the World Trade Organization, requiring it to lower its import tariffs, better protect intellectual property and provide greater foreign access to its service industry. But unless Congress gets rid of existing trade restrictions and makes normal trade relations permanent, U.S. companies cannot enjoy the new trade rules available to the WTO's other 155 members.
There's already concern among U.S. companies that they will fall further behind Chinese and European competitors in gaining shares of Russia's growing market of 140 million consumers. On the other hand, the Obama administration predicts that U.S. exports of goods and services, currently at $11 billion, could double in five years if trade relations are normalized.
"We urge our colleagues to seize this opportunity that Russia's succession to the World Trade Organization presents for both job creation and our ability to bind Russia to a rule-based system of trade and dispute resolution," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The last apparent hurdle to Senate action on the measure came with a decision to accept the House version of human rights legislation that was attached to the trade bill.
Partly in response to lawmakers critical of normalizing trade with Russia at a time when the Moscow government has taken hostile positions toward the United States and pursued anti-democratic policies at home, a provision was attached that would sanction those involved in human rights violations.