Senate passes Russia sanctions deal
The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed legislation imposing new sanctions on Russia and giving Congress the ability to block President Trump from lifting current penalties.
Senators voted 98-2 on the bill, which also includes new sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile development, support for terrorism, transfer of weapons and human rights violations. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted against the measure.
The legislation marks the Senate’s most significant check on the Trump administration’s foreign policy, which has flirted with lifting sanctions in an bid to entice Moscow into an agreement.
The bill now heads to the House, where it faces an uncertain future amid signs of pushback from the administration.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to use a House Foreign Affairs hearing this week to telegraph concerns about the bill, warning lawmakers against undercutting “constructive dialogue” with Russia.
“I would urge Congress to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions,” he told lawmakers.
Those comments appeared to have little impact in the Senate, where the legislation was expected to get wide bipartisan support after GOP Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.) were the only lawmakers to oppose including the Russia sanctions deal in the legislation.
The overwhelming support for new Russia sanctions comes as four congressional committees are investigating Russia’s election interference, including potential ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller, who oversees the FBI’s probe, is also looking into whether Trump tried to obstruct justice, according to The Washington Post.
Republicans for months held off on backing tougher Russia penalties giving the administration space to try to improve relations with the Kremlin despite bipartisan skepticism in Congress.
But GOP senators pointed to lingering frustration over election interference and few signs of progress in Syria, where Moscow supports President Bashar Assad, as factors in their push to pass new penalties.
“The United States needs to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy. There’s no greater threat to our freedoms than attacks on our ability to choose our own leaders free from foreign interference,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The Russia legislation would impose new sanctions on any individuals tied to “malicious cyber activity,” supply weapons to Assad’s government or are tied to Russia’s intelligence and defense sectors.
It would also give Congress 30 days — or 60 days around the August recess — to review and potentially block Trump from lifting or relaxing Russia sanctions, codify the sanctions on Russia imposed by executive order by the Obama administration, and allow the Trump administration to impose new sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) added that the restrictions on lifting sanctions are more closely tied to lawmakers reasserting their authority on sanctions that Congress implements than in imposing a check on Trump.
“This is not a hostile amendment. This is an amendment saying we’ve learned our lesson as a body. We should actually apply this. This is not a partisan issue. Whether it is a Republican or Democrat president is irrelevant in this issue. If Congress creates sanctions, Congress should not release the authority to make decisions on and off,” he said from the Senate floor.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hasn’t publicly commented on the bill, but has previously voiced support for stronger sanctions and warned Trump earlier this year against lifting penalties against Moscow.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, also argued this week that the House has shown an appetite for passing new Russia sanctions bill. The lower chamber passed legislation late last year that would have targeted Russia and Iran for their backing of Assad.
Thursday’s vote capped off roughly a week and a half of negotiations over attaching new Russia penalties to the Iran sanctions bill, which already had brought bipartisan support.
A swath of lawmakers—including leadership, Corker, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), top Democrats on the Senate Banking and Foreign Relations committees and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)—were locked in negotiations for roughly a week trying to hash out an agreement.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised the legislation ahead of the vote, noting it would send a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin and show lawmakers can still work together.
“The final result is a very good one for our country, because… the U.S. Senate said to Mr. Putin in no uncertain terms, that when he violates the international norms and interferes with our election, he will not escape reproach,” Schumer said.
In addition to passing new Russia penalties, the Senate also voted to include a bipartisan amendment on Thursday morning that stressed the Senate’s support for NATO and the Article Five requirement that member states defend each other if one of them is attacked.
The Trump administration’s warmer tone toward Moscow and skepticism of NATO has sparked bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are deeply skeptical of Putin.
Trump omitted committing the NATO’s “Article Five” during a meeting in Brussels late last month, before pledging to support the requirement during a press conference last week with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
The administration has gone back-and-forth over lifting sanctions on Russia.
Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council, said last month that the administration wouldn’t weaken Russia sanctions, adding that, “If anything, we could probably look to get tougher.”
Cohn’s comments were a clarification of earlier remarks in which he said the president didn’t have a position on Russia sanctions.
The administration has also sparked concern over reports that it could hand back two diplomatic compounds in the United States to Russia.