WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday disagreed over President Barack Obama's push for legislation this year to strengthen trade ties with Russia by repealing a largely-symbolic Cold War provision that conflicts with today's global trade rules.
The discussion during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Obama's trade agenda previewed what is expected to be an intense debate this year over approval of "permanent normal trade relations" with Russia in light of concerns in Congress over Moscow's human rights record and foreign policy aims.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who recently visited Moscow, said approval of the trade measure could double U.S. exports to Russia in five years.
But failing to act would put U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage because it would allow Russia to deny then some of the market-opening benefits that Moscow has agreed to make to join the world trade body.
"If we don't pass PNTR by this summer, U.S. companies will lose out to competitors in China, Europe and the 150 other members of the WTO," the Montana Democrat said at a hearing. "We simply can't let that happen."
The top Republican on the Finance panel, Senator Orrin Hatch, criticized Obama for focusing on Russia instead of pursuing broader legislation to give the White House enhanced authority to negotiate new trade deals with other countries.
"The president would have Congress pass PNTR and ignore Russia's rampant corruption, theft of U.S. intellectual property, poor human rights record and adversarial foreign policies for a market that amounts to .05 percent of U.S. exports," Hatch said.
"We hear lot of rhetoric about how the President will only pursue trade policies consistent with his values, especially when it comes to the labor policies of our democratically elected friends in Latin America. But somehow those values vanish in the context of Russia, a corrupt and autocratic regime," Hatch said.
Congress passed legislation known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment at the height of the Cold War in 1974 that tied trade relations with the former Soviet Union to the rights of Jews and other religious minorities to emigrate freely.
Although Russia has been judged in compliance with the provision since at least the 1990s, it remains on the book.
Both Baucus and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk stressed the one-sided nature of the PNTR legislation. The bill only repeals the Jackson-Vanik amendment and does not require the U.S. to make any changes to its tariffs.
"It is decidedly in our interest to address this," Kirk told the panel.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Anthony Boadle)