US House backs removal of 'most-favoured' trade status for Russia, Belarus

The vote took place a day after Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky made a speech to Congress. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly backed legislation on Thursday (March 17) to remove "most favoured nation" trade status for Russia and Belarus over the invasion of Ukraine, paving the way for higher tariffs on imports from the countries.

The Democratic-controlled House voted 424-8 in favour of removing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, the latest congressional effort to put economic pressure on Moscow.

To become law, the measure must also pass the Senate. Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said it would move through the Senate quickly, after approval by the House.

The move to revoke Russia's status at the World Trade Organisation is being coordinated with similar efforts by other G-7 democracies.

It would automatically raise US tariffs to non-WTO rates for imports from Russia and it authorises US President Joe Biden to proclaim higher tariff rates on products from both Russia and Belarus.

But after a ban on US imports of Russian energy products last week, the impact from the tariff status change may be largely symbolic, said Mr Chad Bown, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"Looking at the data, we just don't import a lot of stuff from Russia," Mr Bown said.

According to World Bank data, the biggest non-petroleum imports from Russia in 2020 were palladium, raw "pig" iron, rhodium, unwrought aluminum alloys, plywood and fertilisers.

Palladium and rhodium are used in automotive catalytic converters.

The House vote took place a day after Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky made an emotional speech to Congress - via videolink - appealing for more support. Many lawmakers wore Ukrainian flag pins as they voted.

The measure also would expand the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, easing the imposition of sanctions on Russian officials for human rights violations.

All eight "no" votes came from Republicans, some of whom said the Magnitsky provision gave too much power to the president.

"If we do not speak out for human rights because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights," Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, urging support for the Bill.

Republican Representative Victoria Spartz, the only Ukrainian-born member of Congress, said it was important that close Russian ally Belarus was included. "We cannot create a loophole where Putin is going to use Belarus to funnel money through them," she said.

The measure also directs US Trade Representative Katherine Tai to use "the voice and influence of the United States at the WTO" to encourage other countries to suspend trade concessions to Russia and to halt Belarus' accession to the trade body.

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