Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is on his way back from Russia after meeting with outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, just months before a congressional debate over whether to establish permanent normalized trade relations with Moscow.

The visit was highly coordinated with the Obama administration, according to an aide to Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Baucus is anticipating a debate over granting Russia permanent normalized trade relations (PNTR) status — which would also require the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment — sometime this spring or summer. By then, Russia will be a full member of the World Trade Organization, and U.S. businesses would be at a disadvantage in doing business in Russia if the PNTR issue is not resolved, according to Baucus.

“Expanding trade with Russia could mean billions of dollars of new opportunities for American businesses, ranchers and farmers and create thousands of jobs here at home. But Russia has to play by the rules, and having Russia in the WTO will help to make that happen,” the senator said in a statement.

PNTR status, formerly known as most-favored-nation status, is a legal trade designation that one country grants another to ensure that the recipient country receives terms equal to or better than those of any other trading partner. Russia has been denied permanent status due to the Jackson-Vanik measure but has received presidential waivers annually since 2005.

The Baucus camp was keen to stress that the focus of the senator’s trip went well beyond economic access for American companies, noting that he met with democracy, human rights and environmental activists — as well as with leading transparency and anti-corruption advocates.

Some GOP lawmakers want to link the issues of human rights and corruption in Russia to the granting of PNTR status. Those lawmakers are pushing for passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, named for the anti-corruption lawyer who was allegedly tortured and died in a Russian prison two years ago.

These Republicans — including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment. The administration would prefer not to link Magnitsky to this trade status, because it would prompt the Russians to take retaliatory measures against the United States in other areas of bilateral cooperation.

Moscow staunchly opposes the Magnitsky bill. In fact, the Russian government is moving forward with the prosecution of Magnitsky on criminal tax charges, even though he is dead.

Baucus’s home state of Montana is a major beef exporter and Russia is currently the fifth largest importer of American beef.

Cornyn places hold on Lippert over F-16s

Now that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has lifted his hold on Obama confidant Mark Lippert to become the next top Pentagon official for Asia, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) has stepped in with a hold of his own, over the issue of selling F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.

“In November Senator Cornyn sent a letter to the president requesting a plan to address Taiwan’s aging fleet of fighter jets,” said Cornyn spokesman Drew Brandewie. “The administration finally responded Feb. 16, but failed to adequately address Senator Cornyn’s underlying concern.”

This is not the first time Cornyn has used his power to hold nominees to press his advocacy for selling F-16s to Taiwan. Last July, Cornyn held up the nomination of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed to make a decision on selling the fighter plane to Taiwan.

In October, the administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-15 A/B model planes, but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it is still under consideration.

In the administration’s response to Cornyn, Jim Miller, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote: “We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan’s current needs.”

Miller would be Lippert’s boss at the Office of the Secretary of Defense if Lippert does eventually get confirmed. Miller also faces a confirmation vote in the Senate as he seeks to permanently replace the now-departed Michèle Flournoy.

Josh Rogin