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Blogs / Leadership

The Russia Trade Bill Soap Opera

Job-creators: Exports loaded in Boston.(Steven Senne/AP)

September 17, 2012

Even though they run the House, GOP leaders are blaming Democrats for holding up a bill that would normalize trade relations with Russia.

The legislation would lift Cold War-era restrictions, allowing American businesses to benefit from the reduced tariffs that come with Russia's entrance into the World Trade Organization last month.

The bill hasn't been scheduled for a vote because "we don't see the bipartisan coalition we need in order to pass this," House Republican Leader Eric Cantor said last week.

"We'd be willing to bring this up, wanted to bring this up under suspension and work in cooperation with the Democrats," Cantor said, echoing the line he used last month as Congress headed into August recess. "Unfortunately, to date we have not seen this president stand up and says he supports this."

Never mind that House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier told the Alley, "we have the votes. We're ready to go," before arguing that Obama needs to wrangle more Democratic support for the bill before Republicans will bring it to the floor.  

Enter House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, who told the Alley the White House supports the legislation and so does he.

"I've asked Jack Lew, the chief of staff, and he says it's a priority for them. I don't know what more they have to say, and they've urged us to pass it," Hoyer said

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden wrote in an email to the Alley that "the administration remains in close contact with bipartisan congressional leadership, and we have made it clear that passing a ... permanent normal trade relations bill is the administration's top trade priority."

So what gives?

Possible sticking points include human rights concerns and union opposition. The Russian trade bill passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee with the understanding that it would be paired with human rights legislation.

And unions have also lobbied against the trade proposal, leaving some to speculate that Republicans are pushing Obama to wade further into the debate in the hopes of angering his labor base.

All this has left business groups, who have been lobbying the issue hard, in a weird, and frustrating, place. Even privately, many lobbyists can't explain the holdup. So they just keep forging ahead. They spent last week on the Hill talking up the bill's importance.

"We're pitching this as a jobs bill," Christopher Wenk of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told the Alley. "The votes are there. There is support out there. We just need to keep nudging and pushing and encouraging Congress that this is the right thing to do before election."

Billy House contributed.

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