In this file photo, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces. The video was shown at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and reinforce a ban on Russian oil imports, following weeks of back-and-forth negotiations over the specifics.
Senators in a pair of rare 100-0 votes agreed to send both measures to the U.S. House, where lawmakers voted 420-3 to suspend normal trade with Russia, a move that will place the country, which is waging war against Ukraine, in the same ranks as North Korea and Cuba. Three Republicans voted no: Matt Gaetz of Florida, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Thomas Massie of Kentucky.
The House then voted 413-9 to enshrine a ban on Russian oil imports into law. The Republicans voting against the ban were Gaetz, Greene and Massie, as well as Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona, Dan Bishop of North Carolina and Chip Roy of Texas. They were joined by Democrats Cori Bush of Missouri and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
Both bills now go to President Joe Biden for his expected signature.
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“Ending normal trade relations hammers home that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made Russia into a full-fledged pariah state,” Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said on the Senate floor Thursday morning.
“Americans have been watching these atrocities, these brutal acts perpetrated by Vladimir Putin day after day on TV and their phones and the like. And now the Senate is saying there is going to be clear, clear, clear evidence that what he has done has forfeited the right to normal trade relations.”
Ending Russia’s most favored nation status, or permanent normal trade relations, allows the U.S. government to increase tariffs on Russian imports. The legislation also calls on the U.S. Trade Representative to suspend Russia’s participation in the World Trade Organization.
Wyden, who is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the panel plans to continue working on bipartisan measures that would “take away the subsidies” Russia gets from American taxpayers.
“That happens when you have an American company doing business in Russia,” Wyden said. “They pay taxes to the Russian government, and they get foreign tax credits. I don’t believe the people of Michigan, or Oregon, or anywhere else believe that their hard-earned tax dollars should be used to subsidize Putin’s war machine.”
Human rights debate
The House originally passed the trade bill on a 424-8 vote last month, but Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, objected to quick Senate action over how the legislation would have changed the way the United States defines human rights abuses within a human rights law known as the Magnitsky Act.
Paul didn’t want the House-passed legislation to change the definition from “gross violations of human rights” — which specifically includes acts like torture, inhumane treatment and long detention without charges — to the phrase “serious human rights abuse.”
“What they are trying to do is take the Magnitsky Act and drive an enormous hole in it that you can push anything through and do sanctions on anybody, anywhere in the world, based on a vague, ambiguous, and vast definition that is not specific,” Paul said during floor debate earlier this month.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, offered Paul a floor vote on his amendment to speed up the process late last month, but Paul wanted his changes added to the bill.
Schumer declined, noting that “every senator would like their amendment to be easily inserted into a bill. But in the Senate, we vote.”
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The Senate ultimately did not vote on Paul’s amendment, but changed the language in the bill to keep the definition exactly as it is now.
Standing with Ukraine
Texas GOP Rep. Kevin Brady said during House floor debate Thursday that the legislation demonstrates the U.S. Congress stands with the people of Ukraine amid the Russian war.
“The action we take today is long overdue but necessary,” Brady said, adding the bill was an important “bipartisan victory.”
Before the energy import ban could be lifted, Brady said, Russia would have to remove its military from Ukraine, pose no immediate military threat to a NATO country and recognize the right of Ukrainians to freely and independently choose their own government.
Biden, who originally asked Congress in early March to suspend regular trade relations with Russia and took executive action to ban energy imports, is expected to sign the bills.
Revoking normal trade relations with Russia, Biden said at the time, would make it “harder for Russia to do business with the United States.”
“And doing it in unison with other nations that make up half of the global economy will be another crushing blow to the Russian economy,” Biden continued.
Jacob Fischler contributed to this report.
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