WASHINGTON — Ending nearly 40 years of trade restrictions with Russia, the Senate voted Thursday to approve a bill that will allow U.S. companies to expand business ties with the world’s ninth-largest economy and its 140 million consumers.
The bill to grant permanent normal trade relations to Russia, which passed 92-4, now goes to President Barack Obama, who said Thursday that he’ll sign it.
Businesses had lobbied hard for the legislation, saying it would allow them to cash in after Russia formally joined the World Trade Organization on Aug. 22.
U.S. exports to Russia hit $11 billion last year. With passage of the bill, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a top advocate of the legislation, predicted they will at least double within five years.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, called the bill “a good package” and added, “I believe that we’ve got to do more in the international trade world.”
Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said all U.S. businesses will benefit because Russia now will be forced to lower its tariffs and allow more imports after joining the WTO.
“That sudden jump in market access is, frankly, important to any country that is the first country through the door,” Kerry said.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said the trade deal “includes only concessions by Russia,” since the U.S. is already a member of the WTO.
She predicted that her home state, already the nation’s fourth-largest exporter to Russia, with $665 million worth of goods in 2011, will begin sending more computers, electronics, drugs and dairy products to Russia.
The bill repeals a 1974 law authored by the late Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington state that restricted trade with the former Soviet Union because it wasn’t allowing Jews to emigrate.
In its place, the Senate followed the lead of the House in approving the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, named in honor of a 37-year-old Russian tax lawyer who was arrested and tortured in a Russian prison after exposing the largest tax fraud in the country’s history.
Besides normalizing trade with Russia, it would freeze the assets of any individuals responsible for participating in Magnitsky’s detention or of any others responsible for gross violations of human rights against whistleblowers.
Last month, the Russian government criticized the bill’s language, saying the U.S. should instead focus on its poor performance in housing prisoners at Guantanamo.
But some senators said the language did not go far enough and that it should apply to all countries.
“Unfortunately, the legislation before us is deficient. . . . I believe a global approach would help to deter future abuses throughout the world,” said Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl.
But he voted for the bill anyway, saying he did “not intend to make perfection the enemy of the good.”
Three Democrats – Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island – and independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont voted against the bill.
The House passed the bill last month 365-43.