By STEVE BINDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. senators acted quickly on the heels of their counterparts in the House and last week, with strong bipartisan support, approved a bill establishing permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia.
The Senate voted 92-4 to move Russia out from under the Jackson-Vanik Act from 1974 and establish PNTR with the world’s sixth-largest economy, a move that puts American goods on the same playing field as goods going into Russia from other countries.
But just as quickly as the Senate acted, Russia restated its criticism that a human rights component was included in the measure – and then announced it would require all American beef and pork be free of the additive ractopamine, a requirement USDA officials said violates World Trade Organization (WTO) guidelines.
Russia joined the WTO in August, and immediately lowered tariffs on goods from other member WTO countries that had already granted it PNTR. With the United States doing the same, producers here will benefit significantly; some estimate trade could double with Russia because of it.
But the Russian move with ractopamine upset ag officials. In a combined statement, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said, “The United States is very concerned that Russia has taken these actions, which appear to be inconsistent with its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization. The United States calls on Russia to suspend these new measures and restore market access for U.S. beef and pork products.”
Ractopamine is a growth promoter used by some producers, but Russian officials on Friday said many countries, including China and the European Union, ban its use. On its website Friday, the Russian health agency announced it would test all U.S. imports on its end for an unlisted period of time.
Officials also said the move was not tied to the measure passed by the Senate Dec. 6 and the House late last month, which included the so-called “Magnitsky” bill. This was named after a lawyer who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after he charged government officials with tax fraud.
Part of the human rights provisions included in the bill require the federal government freeze assets of any Russians implicated in human rights abuses and deny them visas – something President Barack Obama previously said he hoped could be considered separately from the trade bill.
The White House on Friday, nonetheless, signaled that it would sign the legislation because of its economic impact here.
During floor discussion before the vote, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “This culture of impunity in Russia has been growing worse and worse. There are still many people who look at the Magnitsky Act as anti-Russia. I disagree.
“Ultimately, passing this legislation will place the United States squarely on the side of the Russian people and the right side of Russian history, which appears to be approaching a crossroads.”
American Soybean Assoc. President Steve Wellman applauded the Senate vote and urged Obama to sign the bill quickly “so U.S. farmers can compete in one of the world’s largest and most promising economies.”