CAPITOL HILL - The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on Friday on a combined bill that would upgrade U.S. trade relations with Russia, while punishing Russian officials for human rights violations.
The House is expected to vote on the package that merges two bills on Russia. One bill would repeal a Cold War-era provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, that linked favorable U.S. tariffs on Russian goods to the right of Jews in the Soviet Union to emigrate. Congress needs to approve "permanent normal trade relations" status with Russia for American companies to receive all of the market benefits from Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Some lawmakers, including Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, says changes in Russia should be recognized.
"Today's Russia is not yesterday's Soviet Union; that is the most important message. Over 20 years of reform have created an imperfect country, yes, but also a new Russia with a relative free press," he said.
The vote comes on the third anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in jail after exposing a massive tax fraud. The second part of the legislative package would direct the U.S. government to deny visas and freeze the U.S. bank assets of Russian officials involved in the detention, abuse or death of Magnitsky.
Democratic Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts says the vote on the so-called Magnitsky Act sends an important message.
"It says that here in the United States that we care about human rights, and that it does matter. And that people who commit human rights violations, not just in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, but in a whole range of other cases, there is a consequence. You will be named, people are watching," he said.
McGovern says that the package of merged bills has broad bipartisan support. "This concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia is not a concern just by Democrats or just by Republicans. There was a rare display of unity today," he said.
If the bill passes in the House as expected, it would then go to the Senate, where supporters are optimistic that it will be approved. It then would go to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
Russia has warned the United States to expect a tough response if Congress passes what it calls "unfriendly and provocative'' legislation. Russian officials have not specified what actions Moscow would take, but say U.S.-Russia ties would suffer.