U.S. may ease trade with Russia , Georgia , Pakistan


Congress could act on legislation this year to establish "permanent normal trade relations" with both Russia and Kazakhstan and to eliminate tariffs on goods from Pakistan , Afghanistan and Georgia , a senior Democratic lawmaker said on Tuesday.

"As you know, the administration has signaled that they want to try to review our relationship with Russia . Now exactly what that means isn't clear and it's a controversial exercise," said Representative Sander Levin, chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means trade subcommittee.

Levin spoke at a meeting with other lawmakers to lay out the committee's agenda for 2009.

Congress has wrestled for years over whether to lift a mostly symbolic Cold War-era restriction on trade with Russia known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

The measure tied normal trade relations with the Soviet Union and other centrally planned economies to the rights of Jews and other religious minorities to emigrate freely.

Russia has been in compliance since 1994, but most U.S. lawmakers have insisted Moscow finish negotiations to join the World Trade Organization before Congress votes to lift the measure and establish permanent normal trade relations.

The United States and Russia intensified efforts in early 2008 to finish Moscow 's 15-year bid to join the WTO. But the political fallout from Russia 's short war with Georgia last year set those talks back.

It also sparked interest in boosting U.S. trade benefits for Georgia to help that country recover. Congress could act on that this year, Levin said.

Kazakhstan , a former Soviet republic in Central Asia , also has been negotiating to join the WTO and could finish in 2009. It also remains subject to the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

If either Russia or Kazakhstan were to finish their WTO bids, the United States would be required under the rules of that organization to establish permanent normal trade relations to share in the benefits of either country's accession.

Levin's agenda also included a bill to waive U.S. import duties on goods made in special zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan in an effort to combat extremism there.

That measure is sponsored in the House by Representative Chris Van Hollen, who told fellow lawmakers on Tuesday that the Obama administration strongly supported it.

It has been carefully crafted to exclude certain textile goods that would cause problems for U.S. producers if imports were increased, Van Hollen said.

It could be possible to move the bill quickly, but "no one should suggest that anything related to Pakistan or Afghanistan is automatic or easy," Levin said.