WASHINGTON - In a bipartisan show of unanimity that supporters said would help create American jobs, the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly Friday to grant Russia permanent normal trading status. The move knocked down a barrier dating to the days of the old Soviet Union that had made it harder for the United States to sell goods and services to the world's ninth-largest economy.
"Passing normalized trade relations for Russia just ensures that Minnesota companies can enhance their exports," said Minnesota Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen, who co-sponsored the bill, which passed by a 365-43 margin.
Paulsen, a free trade proponent, had hoped to pass the bill in July so that Russia's August entry into the World Trade Organization would not put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage. "There was some campaign politics leading into the election," he said in an interview. "But the reality is it's passed now, and the Senate will likely act soon, and it will be on the president's desk before long."
Minnesota exports to Russia totaled $71 million in 2011. That number is expected to grow as the market opens. Minnesota agricultural shipping giant Cargill Inc. strongly backed the legislation, as did Minnesota device maker Medtronic Inc. Both companies hope to see growth in their U.S. businesses by selling more to the Russians.
"We've got an opportunity to expand jobs, especially with med-tech," Paulsen said. "With Russia being the ninth-largest economy and a growing middle class, they're going to be looking to improve their quality of life with health care products. Two-thirds of their medical equipment is obsolete."
Republicans and Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, where Paulsen serves, combined the trade legislation with a bill barring the United States from granting visas to Russians involved in human rights abuses. The combination made the bill palatable to a larger cross-section of the House.
Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, voted for the trade bill because it included a human rights component.
"This bill will be a useful tool to compel Russia to clean up its human rights record," Ellison said in a statement.
All of Minnesota's House members voted for the bill, except Democrat Betty McCollum.
"At a time when Russia is arming the murderous Assad regime in Syria and crushing pro-democracy voices at home, rewarding President Putin with special trade privileges sends the wrong message," she said in a statement.
Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123