By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior U.S. senators on Tuesday unveiled a bill to expand trade with Russia by removing it from a Cold War-era law that links trade with human rights, a move questioned by legislators worried about the country's support for the Syrian government.
The four senators said they would push for a separate bill to address Russian human rights abuses.
The bipartisan move begins what the U.S. business community hopes will be a quick sprint to win congressional approval of the legislation before Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, which is expected by late August.
"This is an opportunity to double our exports to Russia and create thousands of jobs across every sector of the U.S. economy, all at no cost to the U.S. whatsoever," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said in a statement.
Baucus was joined on the bill to establish "permanent normal trade relations," or PNTR, with Russia by Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator John Thune, a Republican on the Finance Committee, also attached his name to the bill.
But in a sign of trouble for what the White House has called its top trade priority this year, eight other Finance panel Republicans said Moscow's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and a number of other concerns must be "satisfactorily" addressed before action on the trade bill.
"Russia continues to support and enable the Assad regime in Syria through officially condoned arms sales and sustained opposition to United Nations Security Council resolutions, and continues to occupy the Democratic Republic of Georgia," Senator Orrin Hatch, the panel's top Republican, and seven colleagues said in a letter to Baucus.
The Republican senators also expressed concern about Russia's commitment to human rights and the rule of law, its poor record of protecting intellectual property rights and a number of longstanding trade irritants that they feared would not be resolved by Moscow joining the WTO.
Russia, the largest economy still outside the WTO, is expected to enter the Geneva-based trade body by the end of August. That has put pressure on Congress to establish PNTR by removing Russia from a 1974 law known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which conditions Russia's eligibility for the most favorable U.S. tariff rates on the rights of Russian Jews and religious minorities to emigrate freely.
If Congress refuses, Russia could under world trade rules deny U.S. exporters some of the market-opening concessions it made to join the WTO. That would give other suppliers in Europe, Asia and Latin America a big advantage in the Russian market.
Although Jewish emigration from Russia is no longer a problem, many members of Congress are reluctant to remove Russia from the old human rights legislation without passing a new law to address current human rights concerns.
"The extension of Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act," McCain said, referring to legislation already approved by the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee that would penalize Russian officials for human rights abuses.
Senator Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, told reporters legislation to normalize trade relations with Russia could not move without the Magnitsky bill.
Russian officials have warned that approval of the Magnitsky Act, named for a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison, would worsen relations. U.S. business groups worry it will hurt exports even if PNTR is approved.
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has dubbed Russia the United States' "number one geopolitical foe". His campaign team on Tuesday did not respond to a request for Romney's position on the Russia PNTR bill.
However, Romney is expected to be pressed on the issue on Wednesday when he meets with the Business Roundtable, a group of corporate executives that has been aggressively lobbying Congress for approval of the bill.
The group's president, John Engler, told reporters he was "pretty optimistic" Congress would come together to pass PNTR because members increasingly realized that U.S. companies will be hurt if the bill is not approved.
"We're really seeing very little pushback," Engler said, shortly before the Republican senators released their letter.
Bill Lane, head of Caterpillar's Washington office, said he believed both the House and Senate could pass PNTR in "a late July vote."
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Beech, Jim Loney and Andrew Hay)