WASHINGTON — Proponents of Senate-passed legislation to hit Russia with economic sanctions and limit the president’s authority to lift the penalties fear the Trump administration may seek to dilute the bill and are urging the House to act quickly.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday called for the House to vote as soon as possible on the measure. McCain, who has been pushing for months for the U.S. to respond to Russia’s election meddling, predicted the legislation would pass overwhelmingly, just as it did in the Senate last week.
“We all know that the Russians tried to interfere in our elections,” McCain said. “Here we are six months later and we’ve done nothing.”
Yet instead of building on the burst of momentum created in the Senate, where the measure won 98 votes, the Republican leadership in the House sent the sweeping sanctions package to the Foreign Affairs Committee for a review. The Russia penalties are embedded in a broader bill slapping sanctions on Iran.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he’s concerned that sending the sanctions bill to the committee will give the Trump administration an opportunity to weaken legislation. Such a move amid multiple investigations into Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election would trigger an outcry among many Democrats and even a number of Republicans.
“Republican leadership should bring it straight to the floor without delay so the House can vote on it and send it to the president’s desk,” Engel said. Any other option, Engel added, will stall “this process and give the White House time to water down this key effort to hold the Kremlin accountable.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he’s disappointed the House review of the bill may hold up a speedy vote. “Russia needs to hear this message that we mean business and we will take effective action,” Blumenthal said.
But Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took a more hands-off approach. He said he’s confident there is “strong interest” in the House for passing Russia sanctions legislation that’s similar to the Senate bill. But he declined to say how and when the House should proceed and he didn’t express concern over potential alterations.
“I don’t want to in any way state how they should go about doing their business,” Corker said. “They don’t do that with us.”
Any substantive changes to the bill would have to be squared with the Senate’s version, which would require more time to get the measure through Congress.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in an email Monday that Ryan believes Congress must do more to hold Russia responsible. She said “we will determine a path ahead in the House” after the Foreign Affairs Committee’s assessment is complete. Strong didn’t say how long the committee’s review would take or whether changes to the sanctions bill are anticipated.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered only lukewarm support for the bill. Tillerson said during congressional testimony last week that President Donald Trump needs to have “the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation” with Russia. An overly aggressive sanctions bill, Tillerson suggested, could lead Moscow to shut off potentially promising talks with Washington.
The sanctions package approved by the Senate is aimed at rebuking Russia for what U.S. intelligence agencies concluded was a hidden campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election to favor Trump. Lawmakers who backed the legislation have cited Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and its backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine as additional reasons for punishing Moscow.
The legislation would give Capitol Hill a much stronger hand in determining Russia sanctions policy. The bill would require a congressional review if Trump attempts to ease or end penalties against Moscow.
A House bill introduced by Engel and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., to punish illegal foreign interference in American elections was pulled at the last minute from consideration by the Foreign Affairs Committee late last month.
The committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Ed Royce of California, explained to Connolly during a committee meeting that he was working to build bipartisan backing for the legislation. He emphasized his interest in highlighting “Russia’s dangerous activities.”
Royce added that Russia hasn’t gone completely unpunished.
The Obama administration struck back at Moscow in late December with a series of penalties aimed at Russia’s leading spy agencies, the GRU and FSB, that the U.S. said were involved. The GRU is Russia’s military intelligence agency. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.