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Business Groups Pressing For Russia Trade Bill During Lame Duck

The departure of Congress until after the elections removes one barrier to normalizing trade relations with Russia, but that also raises a new hurdle for backers of legislation that’s heavily favored by the business world.

Thorny political issues will carry less weight in a lame-duck session, but a bill establishing permanent normalized trade relations also will have to compete for attention during a chaotic postelection period that will be focused on large tax and spending issues. Although supporters remain optimistic, the path to enactment will require the sort of cooperation that’s been in short supply in Congress, even for a measure that has wide support.

“I think there’s a very good chance of it happening in the lame duck,” said Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We just need to all hold hands together and get this done.”

To the U.S. Chamber and other groups, including the Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers, it’s past time to normalize U.S. trade relations with Russia. The country formally joined the World Trade Organization in August, and the United States cannot fully access the lowered trade barriers until Congress repeals Jackson-Vanik, a Cold War-era amendment (PL 93-618) to trade law that targets communist countries that restricted Jewish emigration.

Supporters of lifting Jackson-Vanik, which include the Obama administration, say it would boost the economy by fostering more U.S. exports.

The United States exported roughly $11 billion in goods to Russia last year, and business groups say that could double or triple now that Russia is a WTO member. According to the President’s Export Council, U.S. firms account for only 4.5 percent of Russia’s imports, while Europe holds a 40 percent share and China another 16 percent. Without congressional action, the business community warns, the United States could fall further behind.

Business groups worked unsuccessfully to have Congress take up the measure before recessing. Although bills were easily approved by the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance panels in July, party leaders were in no rush to bring the legislation to the floor because of opposition from organized labor and questions surrounding Russia’s human rights record.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had suggested he would call the bill up earlier this month under a suspension of the rules, an expedited procedure that requires a two-thirds majority vote. But some Democrats wavered because of the labor opposition. House Republicans, meanwhile, did not want to pass the bill without solid Democratic support for fear of appearing soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has come under harsh criticism, particularly from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Some supporters of the bill believe such concerns will fade after the election.

“The political considerations shouldn’t be driving the train at that point,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council. “I’m optimistic.”

Business groups have held more than 300 meetings on Capitol Hill to build support for repealing Jackson-Vanik, and they plan to continue their push in the weeks ahead.

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