Senate approval of legislation to establish permanent, normal trade relations with Russia would send the measure to President Barack Obama for his signature and accomplish one of the major trade goals of American companies eyeing greater exports and investments in Russia.
The House of Representatives passed the legislation last month on a 365-43 vote.
Russia on Aug. 22 formally entered the World Trade Organization, requiring it to lower its import tariffs, better protect intellectual property and provide greater foreign access to its service industry. But unless Congress gets rid of existing trade restrictions and makes normal trade relations permanent, U.S. companies cannot enjoy the new trade rules available to the WTO's other 155 members.
There's already concern among U.S. companies that they will fall further behind Chinese and European competitors in gaining shares of Russia's growing market of 140 million consumers. On the other hand, the Obama administration predicts that U.S. exports of goods and services to Russia, currently at $11 billion, could double in five years if trade relations are normalized.
Debate on the trade bill was expected to begin on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, although it was uncertain when a final vote would take place.
The last apparent hurdle to Senate action on the measure came with a decision to accept the House version of human rights legislation that was attached to the trade bill.
Partly in response to lawmakers critical of normalizing trade with Russia at a time when the Moscow government has taken hostile positions toward the United States and pursued anti-democratic policies at home, a provision was attached that would sanction those involved in human rights violations.
The House barred Russian human rights violators from receiving visas and froze their U.S.-based financial assets. In the Senate version, the measure applied to human rights violators around the world.
On Tuesday Sen. Ben Cardin, who authored the Senate version, indicated that he was willing to accept the House approach so that the bill can be passed. "This bill may only apply to Russia, but it sets a standard that should be applied globally," Cardin said in a statement. "I encourage other nations to follow our lead."
The human rights provision is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and whistle-blower who died in a Russian prison three years ago after allegedly being tortured.
The Moscow government has voiced strong opposition to the Magnitsky language, saying it would increase tensions between the two countries and hinting at retaliation.
The trade bill eliminates the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade bill that tied trade with the Soviet Union to greater freedom for Jews and other Soviet minorities to emigrate.
Although the amendment has long outlived its purpose and is now annually waived by presidents, it has never been removed from the books, preventing the establishment of permanent normal trade relations.