Lawmakers in the House pushed forward last week on legislation to pressure China to raise the value of its currency, while this week legislators will highlight the case of a Russian oil tycoon believed by many to be in prison solely for his vocal opposition to the Kremlin.
Both are sensitive foreign policy areas that the White House may well wish Congress would avoid.
House Democrats last week advanced a bill meant to impose tariffs against Chinese goods due to the undervaluation of the yuan. Legislation put forward by Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) was pushed through Ways and Means on voice vote Friday, with tweaks made to not violate international trade rules.
Fearing rankled relations with China, the Obama administration had urged lawmakers to lay off while urging Beijing to enact currency reforms. But the administration in recent weeks has shown signs it is growing impatient with China, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner vowing to bring up the issue at the Nov. 11-12 G-20 summit in South Korea.
"For years, the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration, and Members of Congress have tried to persuade the Chinese government to allow its currency to respond to market forces. No significant progress has been made," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday. "It is time for Congress to pass legislation that will give the Administration leverage in its bilateral and multilateral negotiations with the Chinese government – so that U.S. businesses and workers have a more level playing field in world trade."
In Thursday's White House press briefing, presidential assistant and Asian affairs director Jeff Bader said that whereas currency discussions usually comprise a quarter of the meeting time between President Obama and Chinese leaders, the issue dominated "most of the meeting" at the United Nations on Thursday between Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
"The president made no commitment to Premier Wen about this legislation," Bader told reporters, adding that the administration would not take a position on the bill. "I don’t recall that this specific bill was brought up, although there was discussion about the attitude of the Congress. And Premier Wen clearly is well aware of that."
The House will vote on the China bill next week, though it is unclear whether the Senate will act next week or in a lame-duck session. One factor may be whether China allows its currency to appreciate between now and the lame-duck session.
And this week, lawmakers will shine a light on a case that Russia doesn't want to be cast as a case of political persecution.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, upon learning that lawyers of an imprisoned Russian entrepreneur would be in Washington, scheduled a briefing for Wednesday to discuss the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky became the richest man in Russia as he led the oil giant Yukos after the fall of the Soviet Union. A vocal critic of then-President Vladimir Putin, he was imprisoned in 2005 on fraud charges. When he was eligible for parole, Russian prosecutors levied fresh embezzlement and money laundering charges against him that could net an additional 22 years behind bars.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, told The Hill that the briefing is intended to bring attention to the "unacceptable type of treatment he has received" -- and put other nations on notice against "using the criminal justice system for political ends."
"If it goes unchallenged, it becomes the norm," Cardin said.
Cardin co-sponsored a sense of the Senate resolution, now stuck in the Foreign Relations Committee, with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in June 2009 that brands the Khodorkovsky case "a politically-motivated case of selective arrest and prosecution that serves as a test of the rule of law and independence of the judicial system of Russia." A sister resolution introduced by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) similarly sits in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, co-sponsored by Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.).
On June 21, Cardin and Wicker, both members of the Foreign Relations panel, engaged in a colloquy on the Senate floor to draw attention to the Khodorkovsky case.
"I cannot speak for the leadership of the Senate as to why it hasn't been brought up," Wicker said of their 2009 resolution. The senator, who told The Hill that he's long been interested in Russia issues, said he is "very disappointed in recent years with the Putin regime and it seems clear to me that the international community recognizes this also."
"They're inching back toward the dictatorship that they had under communism," he said. "Khodorkovsky's offense for which he is being imprisoned is having the temerity to speak out against the Russian regime and their serious backsliding on areas such as democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law."
The Kremlin certainly disagrees, and the congressional attention won't make Russia happy with relations between the federation and the U.S. at a sensitive point. Russia denies any political motivation in the case while making clear it doesn't want foreign interference in the matter. Putin vowed this month not to interfere with the latest trial while simultaneously accusing Khodorkovsky of having "blood on his hands."
Cardin said Putin could step in to stop what the Helsinki Commission calls "legal hooliganism."
"They can do something about it," he said. "We are asking Putin and others to take action in this case."
From behind bars, Khodorkovsky continues to write about what he sees as the crumbling of democracy and the rule of law in Russia and has urged world leaders to re-examine relations with the country. Writing in the Observer last weekend, Khodorkovsky, who pointedly referred to himself as a "political prisoner," urged British Prime Minister David Cameron to put human rights first in efforts to restore relations with the Kremlin -- which have been sullied the past few years after the London murder of spy-turned-Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko -- and help Russians "who are searching for a way out of the darkness of totalitarianism into the light of freedom."
Back in 2005, then-Sen. Obama, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-sponsored a sense of the Senate introduced by then-Sen. Biden that said Khodorkovsky did not received a fair trial, that the charges were politically motivated and that "the judiciary of Russia is an instrument of the Kremlin."
After becoming president and declaring the reset button with Russia hit, Obama has spoken carefully on the Khodorkovsky case. "It does seem odd to me that these new charges, which appear to be a repackaging of the old charges, should be surfacing now," he said on a visit to Moscow in July 2009. Obama said it would be improper to interfere in Russia's legal process and praised President Dmitry Medvedev's "courageous initiative" to strengthen the rule of law.
Wicker said he knows that the case remains among the State Department's many concerns. "The administration is well aware of the disturbing trend we've seen in Russia's cavalier attitude toward the rule of law," he said. Cardin said he's not sure what priority the case takes on the administration's agenda.
There are definite foreign policy priorities on the table for Obama. He wants passage of the START arms reduction treaty, which made it out of Senate Foreign Relations this month. And cooperation is sought when it comes to reining in Iran. The administration praised Moscow on Thursday for complying with international sanctions and freezing a plan to sell Iran a series of long-range surface-to-air missiles. “This continues to demonstrate how Russia and the United States are cooperating closely on behalf of our mutual interests, and global security,” the White House said in a statement. However, the Kremlin quickly stressed that this doesn't end their military cooperation with the Islamic Republic.
And many on Capitol Hill are intent on telling Russia it needs to cooperate more on democracy and human rights concerns.
"I don't think that one commission briefing is going to completely reverse the injustice to Mr. Khodorkovsky, but the greater attention that can be put on this, the greater the pressure on Russia and others who need to reform their judicial systems," Helsinki Commission spokesman Neil Simon told The Hill.
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Senator Cardin speaks at the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna.