* Business groups hope for vote soon on Russia trade bill
* Still no date for action in U.S. House, Senate
* Russian president criticizes Romney as "mistaken"
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Sept 6 Republican presidential
candidate Mitt Romney would support legislation to upgrade U.S.
trade relations with Russia only if Congress also passes a
measure to go after Russian human rights violators, his campaign
said on Thursday.
"Gov. Romney believes that permanent normal trade relations
(PNTR) should only be granted to Russia on the condition that
the Magnitsky human rights bill be passed," Lanhee Chen, policy
director for the Romney campaign, said in a statement.
Chen was referring to legislation being considered in
Congress that would require the U.S. government to impose
sanctions on people believed responsible for the death of Sergei
Magnitsky, an anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian
prison, and other human rights violators.
"(Romney) disagrees with the Obama administration's attempts
to scuttle the Magnitsky bill and its overall reluctance to
shine a light on human rights abuses in Russia and the Putin
government's backsliding on democratic principles," Chen said.
Romney, who faces President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6
election, has taken a tough line on Russia, which he has called
the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" of the United States.
Russia has warned passage of the Magnitsky bill would harm
relations with the United States. But many U.S. lawmakers,
unhappy with Moscow on a number foreign policy fronts, are loath
to pass the PNTR bill without also sending a message to Russia
on human rights.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, a career
diplomat who served as ambassador to Moscow under Republican
President George W. Bush, said on Thursday the Obama
administration believed the PNTR bill should be passed on its
But the administration continues to work with sponsors of
the Magnitsky legislation in both the House and the Senate and
appreciates that they "have tried to take into account some of
the concerns that we've raised," Burns said.
"We've have to a make a judgment about the legislation on
Magnitsky in its final form when it emerges in Congress," Burns
said at a rally hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to urge
quick action on the Russian PNTR bill.
The administration shares the concern many lawmakers have
about Russia's record on human rights and has taken steps to
ensure those "implicated in the tragic death of Sergei Magnitsky
can not travel to the United States," Burns said.
Congress is under pressure to approve the trade bill because
of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization last month.
To do that, it must lift the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment
that tied normal tariff treatment for goods from the former
Soviet Union to the rights of Jews to emigrate.
Russia has been deemed in compliance for nearly two decades.
But the provision remains on the books, at odds with WTO rules
requiring members to provide normal trade relations to one
another on an unconditional basis.
Both Burns and U.S. Commerce Under Secretary Francisco
Sanchez said the United States would be hurting its own
companies, and not Russia, if it failed to pass PNTR.
Since Jackson-Vanik has not been lifted, Russia can legally
deny U.S. companies the full market-opening benefits required
under its accession to the WTO and the United States has no
basis to protest, they said.
Without quick action, companies such as Boeing Co, General
Electric Co and Caterpillar Inc could lose substantial sales in
Russia to their foreign competitors, Sanchez said.
It's now been "more than two weeks now since Russia joined
the WTO. Every day that passes puts American businesses at a
competitive disadvantage," Sanchez said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an interview aired on
Thursday, took aim at Romney, calling his criticism of Russia
"mistaken" campaign rhetoric and suggesting a Romney presidency
would widen the rift over the anti-missile shield the United
States is deploying in Europe.
Putin also condemned U.S. and British efforts to bar
Russians linked to Magnitsky's death.
House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a
Republican, said last month the House would take up the PNTR
bill after it returned next week from a month-long break, and
that the Magnitsky bill would be attached to the measure.
House Republicans want to pass the combined legislation on
the so-called "suspension" calendar, meaning it could not be
amended and would require the support of two-thirds of the House
instead of a simple majority.
While business leaders have said they expect the House to
vote on Sept. 12, Republican aides said on Thursday that no date
has been set yet and they are waiting to see if Democrats can
round up their share of the votes needed to win approval.
There is also no word on whether Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid, a Democrat, will schedule a vote on the legislation.
Both the House and Senate must pass the legislation in order for
Obama to sign it into law.