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House passes bill normalizing Russian trade

Associated Press Modified: November 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm •  Published: November 16, 2012

The administration and economists have predicted that U.S. exports of goods and services, currently at $11 billion, could double in five years if trade relations were normalized.

The White House said in a statement supporting passage that the bill "is about providing opportunities for American businesses and workers and creating jobs here at home."

"Ensuring that American companies and workers can compete in the growing Russian market is essential to increasing U.S. exports, growing our economy and creating American jobs," said Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar Inc., and chairman of the Business Roundtable's international engagement committee.

The legislation also would extend permanent normal trade relations to Moldova, another former Soviet state.

At issue is the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, named after Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, D-Wash., and Rep. Charles Vanik, D-Ohio. The amendment to a 1974 trade bill tied trade with the Soviet Union to greater freedom for Jews and other Soviet minorities seeking to leave the country. Since the 1990s, U.S. presidents annually have waived the now-obsolete requirement, but it still must be eliminated as part of a permanent trade relations accord.

Democrats who normally take a harder look at trade bills were strongly supportive, with many mentioning the addition of the Magnitsky provision.

"It's important to remember that the rule of law in another country is vital, otherwise investment is perilous," said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. "The Magnitsky legislation was added here in part in recognition that when you talk about trade, you have to look at a fuller picture," the Michigan congressman said.

But passage of the human rights provision could spike tensions with Moscow at a time when the United States and Russia already are at odds over issues including missile defense, Syria's civil war and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

After the vote, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the Magnitsky provision "a defiantly unfriendly and provocative attack. The congressmen did not listen to our repeated warnings that such a step will negatively affect the general atmosphere of Russian-American relations and will not remain without a tough response from our side."

The Obama administration has said that while it does not object to the Magnitsky provision, it would have preferred that the trade legislation be taken up on its own. The White House policy statement on the bill refers generally to the need to promote respect for human rights around the world and says the administration will continue to work with Congress to support those seeking a free and democratic future in Russia.